Why I signed the Authors United letter regarding Amazon

So yes, there was this thing where a whole heap of authors got together to sign a letter protesting Amazon’s tactics in its spat with the publisher Hachette. That letter, after circulating on the Internet for quite some time, ran as a two-page ad in The New York Times on Sunday. My name was on it, along with 908 others.

Here’s why I signed it.

While I’m not published with Hachette, I have friends who are. These friends are not best-selling authors, but simply folks trying to make a go of it as a writer. Some are doing it full time. And let me tell you, it’s rough sledding being a full-timer. You rely on those book sales. And you rely on Amazon because it represents – literally – a majority of the sales you’ll make in the United States.

I’m sure it’s not an actual policy, but Amazon customarily discounts nearly every single book in its inventory. The list prices for my novels are $15.99, but on Amazon, they go for less than $12.50 in print and $9.99 in ebook. Those discounts are attractive to a lot of consumers, obviously. They keep my books competitive with other works, both on Amazon and among other vendors.

In its ongoing dramatics with Hachette, Amazon has done a number of things that have directly impacted authors published by Hachette. They’ve also impacted consumers. As the Authors United letter pointed out

  • Amazon is reducing or eliminating those discounts, making Hachette books appear expensive in comparison to those published by other authors.
  • Amazon has placed advertising on the book pages of Hachette books in an attempt to drive traffic away from those books and authors.
  • Amazon has stopped allowing pre-orders on a number of Hachette books, thus reducing the opportunities for those books to make a strong first-week splash and gain traction in the marketplace. Fellow scribe Brian McClellan, he of the Orbit (Hachette)-published Powder Mage books, has taken to accepting pre-orders on his own site for his third novel. (Help him out and pre-order one! It’s a great series.)
  • Amazon it has reduced inventories on Hachette books so that it would take weeks for said books to reach customers – even for Amazon Prime customers who pay $99 a year for two-day shipping on every order.

When Amazon first spoke out about this, it took the unusual step of telling customers that if they didn’t like the delays and inconveniences in obtaining Hachette books, they could simply purchase them from other vendors. This was kind of shocking to me. Just look at this snippet of a news article from 2000:

… it’s the customers that Bezos wants to impress. He speaks about Amazon becoming “Earth’s most customer-centric company.”

“I ask everybody in the company to wake up afraid in the morning, but to be very precise of what they are afraid of,” Bezos said, looking from his conference room at his employees. “They shouldn’t be afraid of our competitors or investors but of our customers.”

You might have noted the byline on that news article. Yes, I sat across the table from Jeff Bezos and he told me that personally, back when I was covering Amazon as an AP reporter in 2000. Back then, if anyone at Amazon were to suggest that customers go buy books from competitors, for any reason, I imagine Bezos would’ve had heads on spikes.

But now? These tactics aren’t customer-centric. The stated goals of Amazon’s negotiations with Hachette might be customer-centric, though certainly I’d imagine Amazon’s bottom line has a lot to do with it too; corporations are rarely charitable, and that goes for Hachette too. Meanwhile, Amazon’s tactics serve to harm customers by not giving them the best price and convenience they’ve come to expect from Amazon. They harm authors as well, because they are seeing their sales from Amazon decline, and Amazon sales are a big part of their income – see what Douglas Preston had to say about his sales in The New York Times.

Here’s the thing: I don’t really support Hachette, or Amazon, in their actual negotiations. They’re two multinational, billion-dollar corporations duking it out over pricing, as so many companies do. That’s fine. That’s how business gets done. I don’t publish with Hachette, though I do have a “traditional” publisher in Night Shade Books, an imprint of Skyhorse Publishing. I also self-published a novella with Amazon last year. I do business on both sides of the fence. I am happy with both experiences.

I also think ebook prices are a touch high, and that lower price points could very well mean better sales volume and higher overall revenue, though I want to see a wider spectrum of data than what Amazon has supplied. I am also an advocate of traditional publishing as one option for authors, and I believe that self-publishing, when done well, is just as viable. I think conflating this Amazon vs. Hachette dispute as a self-published vs. traditionally published battle is extremely misleading and wrong-headed. Yes, the publishing landscape continues to evolve, and anybody who tells you they know how it will all shake out is probably selling something.

In short: You two megacorporations go ahead and hash it out. That’s what you do. But don’t involve authors and customers in this. I signed the Authors United letter because I don’t want Amazon using these tactics on any author, now or in the future. It’s not good for the authors, nor is it good for consumers.


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