Thoughts on the Amazon-Hachette Dispute

Others have commented succinctly on the inadequately-known details of the dispute between Hachette and Amazon over a new contract to sell the publisher’s books online by the retail giant. But there’s one thing that has seldom been mentioned, and that is what I believe to be Hachette’s (and other publishers’) real problem with Amazon.

My thought is that the real dispute isn’t over what discounts Amazon wants to offer on the publishers’ books, or who controls the pricing, or how much Amazon will charge the publishers for preferred marketing. All of these are important issues to be disputed, but this sort of thing arises between publishers and booksellers all the time, and doesn’t result in the kind of high-profile dustup we’re seeing in the media today. If it weren’t for a completely different issue that makes publishers regard Amazon as The Enemy (albeit also a necessity of their economic survival), these arguments might (and probably would) still be taking place, but we wouldn’t hear about them. Amazon and Hachette would resolve them quietly and there would be no battling author open letters or media storms of protest.

What I believe Amazon’s great sin to be, the thing that sends Hachette and other publishers into a frenzy of opposition, is self-publishing.

Ebook pricing disputes threaten to shave off some profits from one side or the other. But self-publishing threatens the big publishers with extinction.

The problem lies in the way that publishing houses, especially the Big 5, operate or historically have operated. The publishers have, in the past, held control over distribution of books. Authors who wanted a chance to sell their books sought a publisher to publish them because there was no other choice. Publishers could dictate terms to all but the biggest and most successful and popular authors, because they had the authors over a barrel. Sign the contract or fade into obscurity — that was the choice.

To a somewhat lesser extent, the publishers could exercise similar dominance over consumers. They were the only source of books, and readers had to pay what the publishers charged or do without.

Self-publishing with print on demand and ebooks has changed that, and although Amazon isn’t the only company offering that service to authors, it’s by far the biggest, and the main reason why self-published books have become a significant and growing part of the book market.

The reality in today’s literary world is that publishing houses are unnecessary, and none more so than the Big 5. Smaller publishers often deliver a genuine service to writers in exchange for a cut of the proceeds, but the Big 5 act like entitled mandarins or Medieval chartered monopolies, so entrenched in the attitude arising from the choke-hold on distribution that they used to hold that they cannot innovate or adapt, nor can they humble themselves to offer authors genuine value for what they ask.

When readers can buy excellent, well-reviewed books for a fraction of the price the big publishers ask, the publishers lose readers. When authors can enjoy superb distribution of their self-published titles, and retain complete artistic control and a high share of royalties, publishers lose writers. And without readers or writers, they will cease to exist. Because they have always been middlemen, not producers.

More than any other company in the world, Amazon is responsible for this change in circumstances.

Publishers regard Amazon as the enemy for this reason. It’s not because it’s the biggest book retailer in the world. That’s the reason given, but it’s disingenuous in my opinion.

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