Backing the Wrong Horse: Why choosing sides in the Amazon—Hachette feud is a moron’s choice for writers.

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Let me state at the outset that the following is likely to outrage writers and publishers. Those who deign to comment will dismiss me as being ignorant or mistaken or secretly in agreement with the “other side.” I want to be clear: the “side” I’m taking in this discussion is mine and mine alone. I’m in business. The only person who will look out for my interests is me. The same is true for any business—Amazon, Hachette, Apple, the rest of the Big Five included. To assume, especially in this environment, that anyone has your best interest at heart (aside from yourself) is delusion.

Why are writers being foolish in picking sides here? Consider the following:

1) A writer is the least important part of the book selling eco-system.

Sure, read that again. You’re thinking, “But without writers, how do they get the stuff they sell?” The problem with your question is that you miss the answer—which you’ve buried in your question. Publishers don’t need writers, they need product. If they needed real writers, James Patterson, Snooki and any other ghosted celebrity author would never have a book appear on a shelf.

Any one writer, myself included, is expendable. And as the explosion of RAW work proves, for every one writer working today, there are five thousand or so souls eager to take our places. Heck, in teaching classes at conventions like DragonCon, I’ve trained thousands to take my place. Any one writer has plenty of competition, and the law of averages suggests that at least one of them is going to be just as talented as the writer they replace.

Moreover, and here’s the really scary part, the desire for validation—the desire to have an authority figure choose your writing as worthy of publication and promotion—is so fierce, that many authors will accept incredibly crappy deals, just so they can be “living the dream.” This means that publishers have zero incentive or need to be making better deals with beginning authors.

2) Publishers feed popular tastes, they do not set them.

Publishers are reactive, not active, when it comes to delivering work. In my publishing career, there have been three trends which have died horrible deaths. Technothrillers became a thing when Ronald Reagan read a Tom Clancy book. Cyberpunk became a thing because Bladerunner. Horror blossomed with Stephen King. All three of these trends blew up, became huge, then collapsed under their own weight.

Publishers bring out a limited number of books per month. If something gets hot, like paranormal romance, it starts getting more slots in the monthly schedule. This extra demand for books means that editors still get to choose the Grade A books that come in, but have to fill in with B and C grade books. A glut of mediocre books leaves readers unsure of what they’re going to get for their money. This, in combination with the fact that no one could afford to buy all the books in any fad, means sales slump. Once sales start to slump, publishers cut their losses, eat the advances on unpublished novels, and start looking for the next fad.

And woe be unto any of the authors whose mediocre skills earned them massive advances just because their subject area was hot. Publishers will remember that author as owing them money and that career will be dead. This, even though the debt was created by the publisher’s irresponsible spending in the first place. (Self-interest, as mentioned above.)

Because publishers react, they buy in the now, not looking at the future. Return on investment is what is good for the business this month, not what is good for long-term sustainability. They remain ignorant of the fact that by poisoning the well for some folks, they can drive them to other entertainment media. (Remember: all the tablet devices now allow the streaming/playing of movies. One more thing to sell, for when there are no books you want to read. Entertainment merchants understand what publishers do not.)

If a writer isn’t writing in the now, for the now taste, they simply don’t exist as far as publishers are concerned.

3) The economy of publishing demands publishers abandon seasoned authors.

This comes down to a case of simple math. Sales volumes on books has been on a downward slide for decades. Because it is in a decline, it is impossible for publishers to correctly gauge advances. Were a publisher to buy a trilogy today, they would be figuring the advances based on sales five years in the future. That’s very tough to do. That’s money they’re risking which they might never recoup.

A seasoned author, ten years ago, might have gotten $30,000 for each book in a trilogy. If a publisher chooses not to buy that book, but in turn spends that $30K in $2,500 lumps as advances on first novels, they get a dozen books, any one of which might become a hit. The $30K book would have to be a hit, whereas the $2,500 books don’t have to be. It’s roulette, and winning chances go up if you spread your chips around the table.

The seeming logical fallacy is this: the seasoned writer has a fan base and the skills to tell a good story. The problem is that publishers don’t have the data to measure that fan base, and quality has never an overriding consideration when it comes to publishing stories. James Patterson, Snooki and others, again, prove this point. In a declining market, what ought to be a sure bet is perceived as a high-risk bet.

4) But digital will save us all.

While folks on both side of the Amazon-Hachette fight champion their patrons as being the altruistic folks who look out for writers, it strikes me that they’re forgetting some very recent history at their peril.

As concerns Amazon, folks have forgotten that back before Apple and the iBookstore entered the market, Amazon paid authors 35% of the cover price of any digital book. Amazon’s backers will point out that that price is still better than the 25% that legacy publishers offer today. Amazon, in its wisdom, had decided then that 35% was the best place for it, and only came up to 70% when forced to by the competition. If 35% was in their best interest then, it’s hard to see how the corporation would view taking less as in its best interest now. There has to be some internal pressure to start moving that price down—which is something they’ve done with books they actually publish with their own imprints.

On the other hand, folks have forgotten that, prior to 2009, the standard legacy publishing contract offered authors 50% of the income earned from digital sales. Then, in 2009—two years after the Kindle had established that there was a market for ebooks, the Big Six—in lock-step, with no DOJ investigation into this bit of collusion—universally dropped the percentage to 25%. They cited the cost of preparing ebooks as the reason they needed more revenue. (Though I doubt that the scan-and-code houses in Pakistan and Singapore got all of that for their work.) That 25% became a deal-breaker in contracts.

On top of that, legacy publishers engaged in several, very well publicized fights with authors over the publishers’ contentions that even though their contracts had never mentioned ebooks, that the contracts covered ebooks, and that the publishers would bring out ebooks and just start shipping the 25% to the authors, thank you very much.

To sum this all up: all corporations will act in their own self-interest. Publishing and book retailing companies have self-interests which do not align with those of writers or, in particular, readers. For writers to take sides in this fight is silly. It wastes energy we should be expending on writing our own work and creating our own retail sites to sell our work directly to our customers. Those are the things which are in our self-interest. We neglect them at our peril.

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20 Responses to “Backing the Wrong Horse: Why choosing sides in the Amazon—Hachette feud is a moron’s choice for writers.”

  1. In this current instance, I’m on Amazon’s “side” insofar as Hachette is behaving badly. Between the two of them, Amazon’s acting professionally. Hachette’s been treating this as a propaganda grab from the start, which gets my hackles up.

    They’re both businesses, looking out for their own self-interest, yes. But I can consider Amazon on the “good” side in the current argument without believing they’ll necessarily stay that way and take care of me forever.

    Actually, most “pro-Amazon” arguments I’ve seen agree with me on the “They’re both businesses acting in their own best interest. Amazon isn’t doing anything wrong.”

    Still, if Hachette wins, trad published prices stay high, right? Which, while not good for me as a reader, is fine for me as a self-publishing author.

    So, because the result will affect my sales environment, I keep an eye on it…but I don’t particularly care who wins.

  2. Scott Couchman 07. Jul, 2014 at 3:33 pm

    Great article. Thank you for being one of the(seemingly) few voices of reason in this mess.

    I was wondering, is there, or have you thought of starting some kind of Writer’s Bazaar / Directory so there is still the convenience of something like Amazon and the brick and mortar stores – browsing a topic for new authors or authors you have forgotten about, etc. – but points to the author’s web store to buy the books and short stories directly? Or whereever the author wants the links to point to: Their Amazon page, B&N, Smashwords, etc.

    I guess GoodReads kind of does it, but it would be nicer to see a more storefront style site.

  3. Brought up some new points to the discussion for me. Thanks.

  4. Actually, that sort of things is a project I’m working on. It’s less about selling than dealing with discoverability. More in the future!

  5. I think that not only is taking sides of no use, entering into a ‘battle’ where you have no weapons is kind of dumb. Authors have practically no leverage, especially not on publishers.

    What we should be focusing on is where this is taking publishing and my focus is on Amazon’s push to control print via POD. Lost in all the percentages is that little clause Amazon is trying impose– where if the book isn’t in stock, Amazon can use its own POD to print it at the distribution center. Extrapolate that out, and if Amazon gains that, we can be sure many books will be ‘out of stock’.

    I don’t view that as good or bad but as a reality. In fact, nothing in publishing has even been all good or all bad. It just is. As an author and publisher, I have to examine realities and factor them into my business plans.

  6. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I’ve been saying this and getting my butt handed back to me. We’re all authors. We should be on the same side: the “let the giants duke it out while we continue to do our thing” side.

    I am well aware that how this ends could impact my career, in some (small) way, but I’m my own company; I’ll map out a path according to whatever happens. My livelihood does not solely depend on either Amazon or Hachette, or even any other retailer/publisher. It depends on what I write and what my readers choose to purchase. I sell my books through about a dozen different places (my “honeypots”), and could easily sell them through my own website if I absolutely needed to.

    I think both companies are behaving poorly. I think the authors who are bullying others into picking sides are behaving poorly. I think we authors should stick together rather than choosing sides, let the proverbial chips fall where they may, and adjust accordingly. If we work together, it won’t really matter how this plays out.

    And, if we work together, the readers—those people who are really the ones who gave us our careers—will come out the winners. To quote Lost: “Live together, die alone.”

  7. Whereas calling hundreds of your fellow writers “morons” is a really really smart thing to do.

  8. Really? That’s the best criticism you can offer?

  9. I completely agree about the business aspect of this. Many, if not most, writers need to be more aware of the business side of what they do. The romantic (if you can call it that) idea of simply existing as a hermit in your writing cave, sending your manuscripts out as they’re finished and utterly ignoring the outside world is pure fantasy.

    I do, however, think it’s important for writers to voice their opinions and discuss the dispute. I realize we have little or no bearing on the outcome, but if we remain silent, then the players are left to assume we’re all okay with what is going on in the industry. Whether it’s terrible royalty rates and onerous terms from the Big 5 in their contracts or poor working conditions in Amazon warehouses or the fear of a too-dominant retailer ruining the market — these are all important talking points and should be discussed. Because, if we don’t engage in conversation and debate, change will likely never happen.

    And I believe many, or all, of these things need examining, for the good of writers and readers alike.

  10. @Bob Mayer

    Your POV assumes that Amazon will manipulate the system to ensure books aren’t on the shelf so it can make more profit from POD books.

    One could look at Amazon’s position as desiring books be always available. Amazon is customer centric, and it wants books available when the customer wants them.

    If the publisher doesn’t want to make that money from a physical copy, Amazon will.

    @Mike Stackpole
    Books are not a fungible commodity. This isn’t a situation where I need gas, and the gas from 7-11 is just as good as the gas from Circle K.

    If I want to read Bob Mayer’s Green Beret novels, only Bob Mayer can write them. No publisher can replace him.

    The only time, that I can think of, where the author isn’t as crucial is with big IPs. Disney will find someone to write the novelization of Star Wars EP VI, and it doesn’t matter if it’s written by Peter David or Mike Stackpole, the book will be mostly the same.

    It really doesn’t work to say author’s aren’t important as publishers can put out any crap it wants. Readers like their crap single sourced.

  11. I must admit, I have a hard time seeing the problem with books being printed via POD by Amazon rather than in bulk by the publisher. The publisher and author would still get paid either way, wouldn’t they? And I have a hard time imagining many contracts still have an out-of-print rights reversion clause in this era when an e-book can be perpetually “in print.”

    And if it would mean less waste of paper and fuel in terms of printing books, sending them out, sending them back (or destroying them), sending them to remainder dealers, what’s wrong with that?

    In my opinion, the publishers should have started moving to print-on-demand ages ago. In my perfect world, there’d be an Espresso in every Barnes & Noble, and most major and minor publishers’ books could be ordered through it.

  12. Richard, I’m sure you didn’t mean to suggest that authors like Bob are irreplaceable, whereas someone like me is when dealing with a big IP. If you’ve looked at discussions about IP novels, the quality and skill of authors does make a difference. At least, to the readers. To make that suggestion would completely undercut your point.

    It is important to note, my comment about writers and their place in the eco-system does not reference readers. Readers—and all of us are readers—have our favorites and writers who write to our taste. From the business side of things, however, unless an author has become incredibly big (for reasons that do not have any necessary connection to skill or quality (Fifty Shades as a case in point)), a writer can be pitched and easily replaced. I’m not saying this because I don’t like writers, or that I don’t respect readers. I say it because publishing companies have proved it over and over again.

    Which goes to my point: only writers will take care of their best interest. For everyone else, we are a means to an end. That’s not to make book retailers or publishers out to be bad guys, nor more than it is to suggest anyone trying to make a profit is a bad guy.

  13. Chris, your comments about the economy of POD, and POD being more environmentally friendly are very good. Here are a few things to consider, however.

    1) Espresso book machines work within a proprietary environment. Because they only offer particular content, which pays them every time a book is printed, they become as much a gatekeeper as any publisher. Because they’ll be taking a cut, their pay will have to come from somewhere. There are four choices for that: from the publisher, from the retailer, from the author or from the reader. Ultimately the reader will pay for it, but I’ve also watched money come out of authors’ pockets and I’d just as soon not see that.

    Right now, in the Espresso environment, you’d not be getting any of the privately published novels I’ve done, for example. The same is true for the work of many other authors—we’re small fry in the publishing end of things, so it will be a long time before we get deals to have our books available. (There are other systems that might be more friendly to indies, but then we have the whole issue of how to accurately track copies printed and sold.)

    2) The reason authors want books to revert (and the reason copyright law has the 35 year reversion window built in) is because an author should be able to profit justly from his work. Here’s a case: You publish your first five novels with a royalty of 6% of cover. Then your career skyrockets. For your new books you get 15% of cover; and your backlist is suddenly very hot. Why wouldn’t those books be worth your getting 15%? (They would, and often times part of a new deal would be to make an adjustment to an old deal.)

    More often the case is that a publisher has let an author’s work go out of print. They’re not pushing it (and most reversion clauses specify a work needing to be out of print for 7 years before you can request reversion). The author believes, on getting the rights back, that he can turn around and either pub it himself at an advantage, or sell it to another publisher who wants to publish the books. (Let’s say the author is returning to that universe, so those books would be prequels to new work.) The old publisher is under zero obligation or incentive to publish, let alone advertise those books.

    3) Many of the reversion clauses address print books, even in an era of ebooks, because legacy publishing still hasn’t come to grips with how best to exploit ebook assets. We are in an era of change, and contracts are not catching up.

    4) The specific difficulty of Amazon doing POD prints (as they do for books from CreateSpace) is that publishers have no control over quality, and have no guarantee that Amazon will make changes to the books when they make them. For example, Amazon might not repackage the covers to match the new covers being put on a series as back issue books are released. On top of that, and back to point one, allowing someone else to print your books creates a bookkeeping nightmare.

    The greatest difficulty is this: if book companies don’t have to print books to make a profit, they will stop. They will cede that part of the business to Amazon. They will let their warehouses go. They will trim their sales and delivery staff. They’ll get to a point where they cannot print and deliver books. At that point the game is over and Amazon will control virtually everything.

    I don’t know if any of this will come to pass, but I’m sure there are folks who are afraid it will. Those folks will take steps to see that it doesn’t, no matter how foolish that might be.

  14. Deborah Smith 08. Jul, 2014 at 7:24 pm

    Great post, Mike. I wrote for the major houses for nearly twenty years, and have been a small press publisher for fifteen. I deal with Amazon as a publisher/vendor. Couldn’t agree with you more. The entire system views (all put the top 1 percent of) writers as dispensable cogs in a big wheel. “There’s lots more where you came from, baby.”

  15. @Chris: My contract with a small publisher (45% royalties) reverts rights to me when digital sales fall below a certain level; they revert automatically after 6 years. So it doesn’t have to be perpetual. If the publisher pushes my books ( as it is doing) and they gain traction, I can self-publish them after those six years. Seems the best of both worlds to me…

  16. Picking a side is pretty much picking who you would rather rip you off. I just wish there were better alternatives to Amazon, Apple and the traditional publishers (bigger alternatives that can actually compete).

  17. Mike: The point is, I would have expected by now that most authors and agents should be insisting on criteria other than whether the book is still “in print” for their reversion clause (such as the one Sharon mentioned), given that it’s clear that “in print” doesn’t necessarily have any meaning (or at least, any meaning all parties can agree upon) in the e-book and POD era.

    Which makes it puzzling that so many people bring up “in print” reversion clauses as an objection to Amazon POD. People shouldn’t be using that kind of clause anymore anyway.

  18. Chris, you have to recall two points:

    1) Most of the contracts we’re discussing in this regard were signed well before 2007, when ebooks became viable, and 2010, which was when POD began to seem viable. While seven and four years might seem a long time, in publishing it’s nothing.

    2) Authors don’t write the contracts. Publishers do. There are clauses, like the reversion clauses, which are “deal breakers.” An author who, say, has a mortgage, or kids to put through school, or health insurance to pay for, might find an offer to be a set of golden handcuffs.

    Your general point is correct. The term “in print” needs to be redefined in this era. It hasn’t. Until it is, there’s going to be problems.

  19. I’d say that seven years is still a bit short. People were thinking about how no book would ever have to go out of print anymore in the e-book age as far back as 1998:

    Regardless of the initial costs, the advocates of the electronic book point to long-term benefits: Currently, 50,000 books go out of print every year thanks to the high cost of printing, inventory and shipping. If a title sells only a few thousand copies each year, it’s not worth reprinting. With the digital book, no title would ever have to go out of print; all costs are up front.

    And I’ve heard about a lot of authors, such as Sharon, who have been asking for and getting more sensible reversion clauses in their contracts.

    For that matter, if contracts with “in print” reversion clauses still so commonplace, it’s odd that there haven’t been more stories about authors having trouble activating them because of e-books counting as “in print.” I don’t recall hearing about that many.

    At any rate, as a long-time fan of e-books, having followed articles about them and print-on-demand tech for the last sixteen years and remembering these discussions coming up way, way back in the day, it just feels strange that they’re still coming up now.

    As you say, there are reasons for that. Still, to me it just feels like yet another case (as with the publishers ceding control of the e-book market to Amazon and then being horrified that Amazon actually took them up on it) of people failing to learn from history.