BIG IDEAS

Amazon-Hachette Fight: Is Amazon Really the Bad Guy?

When a supplier and retailer are at odds over terms, it's usually not headline news. Welcome to the rarified world of publishing.
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Forget, for a minute, whether you side with Amazon or Hachette in their headline-generating spat. Instead, ask yourself: Why is this seller-supplier fracas causing so much buzz?

One theory, advanced by Jeremy Greenfield in The Atlantic, is that "the future of ideas" is at stake. The reason? If you envision a bookselling future controlled largely by Amazon, Greenfield fears that the retailer would promote high-margin bestsellers at the expense of important (but low-margin) books of intellectual heft: 

Nonfiction books, like Walter Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs, are expensive and risky to produce and rarely sell well, yet many of these books drive intellectual thinking in the U.S. Robert Caro's latest book on Lyndon Johnson The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson took nearly a decade to write--and that means investment and risk....

As more book sales flowed through Amazon, it would have even more direct control over what people read. The company would have little incentive, for instance, to surface books readers are less likely to buy. If The Hunger Games is all the rage, then the company is best served pushing that title toward its readers at the expense of other books. Or, much more nefariously, it could discourage readers from buying books with a point of view it doesn't agree with.

I respect Greenfield's opinion. But to some extent, his outlook (wherein bestseller candy gets most of the retailer-generated attention) is already the reality. Yet it hasn't stopped Isaacson's book from getting a metric ton of attention, nor has it stopped a translated book on capitalism from dominating the nation's high-concept conversation. 

An Author's Perspective

From my perspective, most retailers--whether they're online like Amazon, chains like Barnes & Noble, or indie stores--already push bestsellers at the expense of what I'll reductively call more "challenging" works. And how can anyone blame them? Rent needs to be paid. Investors need to be pleased.

Certainly, there are retailers whose stores (and virtual store fronts) manifest the aesthetic and intellectual preferences of their owners and employees. By promoting the challenging books you can't find everywhere, they make the world a better place. I'm an author. I'm a nerd. I love the vast majority of indie bookstores I've ever seen. 

But even indie stores with high quotients of challenging titles have their strictly fiscal relationships to protect. And while it's easy to paint any book store--even B&N, at this point--as an underdog compared to Amazon, the reality is, these stores are hardly equal-opportunity displayers of intellectually important fiction and nonfiction. 

My friend, a gifted writer from Brooklyn named Dolan Morgan, recently blogged about his inability to get his new book, published by a small press, into an indie store in the town where he grew up. The store told him: "We're a small independent bookstore, so we can't really work with small independent presses."

Morgan's experience is all-too-typical for small-press authors. When my debut novel came out last year, there were several indies who agreed to stock it. But there were just as many who laughed in their sleeves when I approached, after learning that I was with a small press. 

The bottom line: It is hard persuading stores (whether they're B&N or indie) to stock your book, if you're not published by one of the "big five" publishers: Hachette, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Macmillan, and Penguin Random House.

But I tell you where you can always find my novel and Morgan's: On Amazon. 

The Real Underdogs

Let me be clear: I'm not trying to venerate Amazon at the expense of indie retailers, or vice versa. I love indie bookstores. So does Morgan. So does every author under the sun. My point is only that Amazon is not an enemy to small press authors or small presses or literary underdogs or challenging titles. Far from it. Marty Shepherd of The Permanent Press has also made this case. 

Likewise, Hachette is not an underdog in the literary world. Hachette is part of a $10-billion conglomerate.

The real underdogs are the entities who are on their own: the authors and the indie stores. And while I revere all indie stores--have I made that clear enough?--and grasp that they're operating by razor-thin margins, the fact is, they are not going out of business. According to the American Bookseller's Association, the number of indie store businesses and store locations has risen steadily since 2009. 

Of course, I feel awful for the Hachette authors whose Amazon pages--and preorder totals--are affected by this fracas. These authors did nothing wrong. They did what most authors do: They devoted years of their life to the written word, likely without any promise that it would ever pay off financially or emotionally. They acted like artist-entrepreneurs. For their sake, let's hope that this supplier-seller dispute ends swiftly and peacefully. 

Here's the latest from both Amazon and Hachette on the dispute. 

Last updated: May 30, 2014




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