Publishing tug of war

Free money to authors: the media reaction to Amazon’s offer

For the media, the Hachette v Amazon dispute is the gift that keeps on giving.

Just when we’ve analysed the latest in the dispute and taken sides (I’m personally still not sure how anyone who doesn’t work for Hachette is siding with Hachette, but no-matter) some new grist for the mill is uncovered.

Yesterday it was the leaked letter from Amazon to a select group of authors.

You can read the Amazon letter here, but the summary is:

  • Amazon realise that the dispute is hurting sales, which hurts authors – especially new or mid-list authors.
  • Amazon has offered to give Hachette authors 100% of the price of every ebook sold on Amazon’s website, instead of the paltry 12.5%-25% that Hachette gives them.
  • They can do this within 72 hours. (i.e – the money could start flowing fast – unlike traditional publishing.)
  • Amazon would need Hachette’s permission.

First off, my take on this is that it’s a PR masterstroke. Amazon is somehow still been cast as the bad guy by Big Publishing, which claims to have author’s interests at heart. You know – so they can keep ebook prices high and pay authors more.

So Amazon has offered to pay authors more – but directly. Amazon knows that the letter will end up in the press, and it know that by doing this when Hachette or its authors complain about it – when they think of an angle to complain about – it’s going to be more obvious that Hachette is protecting Hachette, not its authors. After all, someone just offered to quadruple their revenue!

The other thing the letter does is reinforce to authors the fact that publishing houses are expendable in the author/reader supply chain. Those the “carved in granite” royalty terms in their contracts are just a made-up number, people! Someone just said they could change them in three days! That’s the third objective of the offer, in my view – to remind authors that publishing paradigms don’t have to apply to the whole world – they can change if authors insist they change.

So, to the reactions. I read the tech-focused media, which I think is representative of the different spins put onto the same news:

In GigOM, the journalist does a decent job of trying to remain unbiased, but the tone is definitely Anti-Amazon. I have no idea why:

Hachette would need to agree to the proposal, of course, and the letter made it clear that as of its writing Amazon hadn’t actually suggested the idea to Hachette yet: Rather, it’s what “we’re thinking of proposing to them,” and it wants to “get feedback” from authors and agents first. It is likely that the company suspected — or hoped — the letter would become public as a means of putting pressure on Hachette: Amazon comes across as the good guy, looking out “for midlist and debut authors,” while Hachette’s “unresponsiveness and unwillingness to talk until we took action put us in this position.”

Of course they hoped it would become public. Duh! They haven’t actually suggested … “let’s use quote marks to imply damning evidence”…

Engadget injects a little levity in their version of the story, but comes up with more brief and balanced coverage, with no discernable bias, in my view:

If nothing else, the attempt shows that Amazon’s willing to work negotiate with the parties involved.

But, as all good journalists do, offer a counterpoint:

Authors Guild president Roxana Robinson points out that this tactic could serve to drive a wedge between authors and their publishers. “This seems like a short-term solution that encourages authors to take sides against their publishers,” she said.

TechCrunch, the one-respected (at least, by me) tech site, spun its version of the Amazon story here. It seems to dislike both sides equally. It also relied on the liberal use of “quotes” to cast doubt on points of fact:

The letter, which has resulted in raspberries from the Authors Guild, is a direct attempt by Amazon to “help” the authors which, in the end, will hamstring Hachette.

One can only guess at why the quotes were used around “help” – would a lot of extra money hinder the authors? – if not to try to demonise Amazon or imply it always has other motives. Yes, Crunchpersons, Amazon may we looking to achieve other things with this offer, even to hamstring Hachette, but the money would help, not “help” in any case.

Furthermore, the sense of publisher entitlement is fierce. As mystery writer Robert Chazz Chute wrote last week on the intransigence of the Authors Guild to consider Amazon’s terms, “calling Amazon a monopoly when they are merely winning at competition, for instance, is pretty weird.” Amazon is the bookstore. They don’t have to carry anything they don’t want to carry. While once the publishers were the bullies, now the bookstore is. And it seems like fair play.

So why isn’t the offer of free money going to “help” authors?

Anyway, I think I like Amazon’s and Hachette’s tit-for-tat statement responses to each other on the matter the best. Advantage Amazon for “We call baloney”:

Statements from Hachette and Amazon


“Amazon has just sent us a brief proposal.  We invite Amazon to withdraw the sanctions they have unilaterally imposed, and we will continue to negotiate in good faith and with the hope of a swift conclusion. We believe that the best outcome for the writers we publish is a contract with Amazon that brings genuine marketing benefits and whose terms allow Hachette to continue to invest in writers, marketing, and innovation.  We look forward to resolving this dispute soon and to the benefit of the writers who have trusted their books to us.”


“We call baloney. Hachette is part of a $10 billion global conglomerate. It wouldn’t be ‘suicide.* They can afford it. What they’re really making clear is that they absolutely want their authors caught in the middle of this negotiation because they believe it increases their leverage. All the while, they are stalling and refusing to negotiate, despite the pain caused to their authors. Our offer is sincere. They should take us up on it.”


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