Finding the Little Guy

As someone who one day would like to be published, preferably through traditional means, I have been fascinated by the current Amazon vs. Hachette drama.

I’ll be honest, I am not great at the business aspect of publishing.  Ever since my first moment as a child, when I picked up a notepad and pencil and decided I could be a writer, I have been focused on the art or writing.  I was going to be an author, and in my mind that meant my concern should be the writing; the business was going to be someone else’s problem.  After finishing my first manuscript, I began rethinking that strategy.  I’m still learning, and there is a lot I don’t know.  In truth, I think no matter how much I try to learn now, it will be a bit of a baptism by fire when I get to the final moments of publishing, no matter how I choose to do it.

I didn’t come to this argument due to a desire to know everything going on between the two companies.  I ran across an article on twitter a couple of weeks ago.  Someone had linked to an interesting read on the influence Amazon has had in the publishing world, discussing the benefits that are available to authors and small publishing houses.  It spoke of how this company that no one believed had anything power to affect publishing was making headway, and was finally a power large enough to challenge the Big Five.  They spoke as though someone had finally given David a slingshot and rock, and finally Goliath might fall.  (I looked for the article to link here, but for the life of me I can’t find it anymore.)

A few days later, I ran across a comment where John Green was speaking out against Amazon’s treatment of the authors of Hachette.  I was slightly confused, considering the article I had just read sang their praises, and John Green is an intelligent man in the literary field.  Hmm.

Shortly after that, I found another blurb where J.K. Rowling was also against Amazon for their practices regarding her new book (written under her pen name, Robert Galbraith and published through Hachette).  I still thought it was weird.  J.K. Rowling is a very wealthy writer, but is reported to give a large amount to charity so it didn’t seem like it would be the greed talking.  She doesn’t need the money that comes from writing new books, so she wouldn’t be complaining because her paycheck was a little smaller.

The final straw came while I was watching The Colbert Report.  As a Hachette author, Stephen Colbert was very unhappy to find his books unavailable on Amazon, or given large delivery delays.  He was joining the fight not only through a few small snide comments, but by declaring everyone should completely boycott Amazon, not buying any products from them.  His campaign involved not only the hashtag, cutdowntheamazon, but also the promotion of a smaller debut Hachette author who was losing out on pre order sales.

I was still a little confused as to how an issue I had read a little about seemed to have such a strangely large following on the side that seemed to be wrong.  I knew that the obvious answer to that was that I didn’t know nearly enough about what was going on.  So, I read up on the fight a little.  I read a lot of articles, on both sides, far too many to link here, and honestly I read them over a couple of weeks, so I didn’t save them all.  If you would like to know more than my summary, and I encourage you to do the research yourself, search this argument online yourself.  Amazon vs. Hachette will get you a lot of anti-Amazon articles, whereas Amazon vs. Big Five will be more on the pro-Amazon side.  If you really want to know what is going on, look at both sides.

From the pro Hachette side, I learned that they are currently in negotiations with Amazon involving their distribution.  These negotiations are on the tail end of a price fixing conspiracy accusation aimed at the Big Five, and Hachette is only the first to hit the table; the other four publishing houses are coming up soon and results here will affect what happens later.  The exact sticking points are officially unknown, but it is reported to be pricing of digital books, and how much profit everyone makes from these.  Since the profits are based on percentages of the sale, and not a fixed price, no one likes Amazon cutting prices on the ebooks, since it also cuts into their profits.  During these negotiations, Hachette books are no longer available for pre-order, have had delayed deliveries, and are no longer coming up on recommendation lists.  These tactics are being attacked as bad form and bullying.

Let me tell you, the writers of these articles are amazing.  I had recently been looking at Amazon as the little guy, taking on the giant publishing houses; now Amazon looked like Godzilla terrorizing Tokyo.

This was slightly confusing for me.  How could one company be both David and Goliath?  Yes, Amazon is a huge company, and they are not going to suffer too much in profit loss from the lack of sales they experience during these negotiations.  And Yes, Hachette is the smallest of the Big Five, but they are certainly not a small or independent publishing company; pen name or not, they have J.K. Rowling on their author list.  They might have a few sales problems, but they have the power to recover.

I can understand Amazon not giving a preorder option when they are in negotiations, or having delays for product shipping.  We are not at the table with them, or in the Amazon warehouses.  I don’t know how much product they have, and I do not know how likely they are to get new product soon.  What I do know, is withholding books is likely the only card Hachette has to play.  Maybe they are already holding back on deliveries, maybe not.  I can’t blame Amazon for being cautious with the possibility that they might.  Making promises when you are not certain you can deliver is not good business.  Is it possible they are only trying to show the power they have over sales?  Absolutely a possibility, but not necessarily any more certain than the idea that they are being cautious and making certain they can continue to keep their promises to their customers.

What I am beginning to see, is that neither of them are in fact the little guy.  This isn’t the story both sides are trying to sell.  There is no David here, just two Goliaths duking it out.  Amazon is great at helping the little guy get out there and get the virtual shelf space they desire, side by side with the big books.  Hachette is a large publishing house, with the staff and knowledge to help turn ok books into bestsellers.  They both have their niche, and they both serve the literary world in their own way, but when they fight the losers are the authors.

I’m not sure I can determine who is in the right here.  These two giants are fighting about the literary business, while I am still lost in the art.  I like knowing that Amazon is there if I ever choose to self publish, but I honestly think I need the backing of an agent and a publishing house to help me make my work it’s best and navigate the long road to publishing.  On the one hand is the options for authors, and the other is the experience and teamwork.  I see too much benefit for both sides of the argument.  All I can hope is that when the dust settles, the writers come out on top.  Publishing is a two way street.  We might need the publishers, but they need us too.   We’re all a part of the process, and losing any of that makes the entire system collapse.

I’m not sure who will win this, and I’m not sure I know who I want to win.  I am definitely curious to see how this plays out.  Whoever wins, there will be a fallout of some sort, and I am curious as to what that will be.