Amazon’s spot in the news over the last few months has nothing to do with their potentially forthcoming drone delivery service, their robotic warehouse workers, or even their TV adaptation of one of my favorite Philip K. Dick books, The Man in the High Castle. It has to do with their months-long war against the publishing company Hachette, which Amazon claims is charging too much for e-books. When giant web retailer asked for concessions (while the exact terms are unknown, there’s been speculation that Amazon asked for a raise from 30 to 50% of the revenue per e-book), Hachette was unwilling to budge, so they have been holding Hachette-published books hostage, delaying their shipping times by weeks, slashing print inventory, and cutting off pre-orders, costing both authors and the company quite a bit of money (and a lot of goodwill).
Amazon argues that publishers walk away with too much cash for e-books, given that they don’t really have a production cost and given that their roles as publicists are waning in the era of social media. They claim they want writers to get higher royalties—for print books, most authors get 15%, and for e-books they average 25%. Amazon pays people who publish with them 35%, and writers who self-publish and use them for selling and promotion get even more. At the same time, they think that e-books should simply cost less. Hachette wants to charge more than Amazon’s standard $9.99 for e-books.
Because Amazon is responsible for roughly 60% of Hachette’s e-book sales, it believes they should be more grateful. At the same time, Hachette’s chief executive says the argument is very simple: “it’s all about Amazon trying to make more money.” Hachette isn’t the only company they have asked for bigger cuts. Because of Amazon’s incredibly wide reach, the pressure to profit is incredible, and shareholders are getting antsy. Hachette says they have put three offers on the table, each more “generous” than the last, but Amazon continues to say that they are unwilling to negotiate.
Now, months later, writers are getting pissed. Douglas Preston formed a group called Authors United, established to pressure Amazon to stop holding their books (and livelihoods) hostage as they battle with Hachette. They even put an ad in the New York Times that cost over $100,000. Among the hundreds of authors that comprise the group, many of which are Hachette clients, there are a few notable names, including Stephen King, Suzanne Collins, Lois Lowry, Greg Mandel, and Kim Stanley Robinson.
Some authors, including Hugh Howey (whose fantastic 5-part Wool omnibus, which owes quite a debt to Amazon and is one of the best works of sci-fi I’ve read in years), launched a pro-Amazon petition in response, urging Hachette to support Amazon and agree to reasonable terms. The company responded to the Authors United ad, referencing the history of the paperback book and how publishing railed against them given that they were so much cheaper than hardcovers, and liken Hatchette to the accessibility and affordability of those books.
Their argument is fairly compelling until they try to enlist George Orwell by positioning him as anti-paperback. “If publishers had any sense, they would combine against them and suppress them,” they quote him as saying. He was wrong to suggest collusion against paperbacks, Amazon says, because it wasn’t in his best interest. True, had Orwell actually suggested suppressing paperbacks that would have been counter-productive for him. But he wasn’t. As the New York Times points out, a quick Google search reveals that what Orwell actually said in 1936 was that “Penguin Books are splendid value for sixpence, so splendid that if the other publishers had any sense they would combine against them and suppress them.” An ironic statement given what’s happening right now, no? Orwell wasn’t taking a stand against paperbacks, but he was concerned about dropping the price of books too much. “It is of course a great mistake to imagine that cheap books are good for the book trade…The cheaper books become, the less money is spent on books” and the more money is spent on other media. Orwell noted that the problem is book consumption, or lack thereof, a problem that both Amazon and Hachette are exacerbating.