Where do you feel like the Amazon vs Hachette thing is going to end up, and how screwed are the authors?
Disclaimer duh: I am not a trained professional in almost any sense of those words. My experience, foresight, wisdom, and power are all a partial first draft. But my go-to starting point when unpacking a conflict as large, multi-cogged and parallaxed as Amazon V. Hachette (aka Bezos v. Books, Justice Department’s Revenge, and Page(s) Against The Machine) is to first break it into its component parts, and once that’s done, determining each one’s:
Maybe it’s my inner salesman talking but I truly believe that to understand conflicts, you need to know what folks want, no matter how misguided or perverse their attempts to achieve it. That and nobody knows the specifics because of nondisclosure agreements and secret negotiations, so unless you’re a member of Jeff Bezos’ or Michael Pietsch’s domestic staff and/or significant others, there’s no point speculating. So let’s start with the key players here.
AMAZON: Amazon wants to get paid. Not just in the sales run through their website and Marketplace, not just in the co-op fees they demand of their publishers, not just in the progressively deepening discount they demand of publisher’s product (i.e. pbooks and ebooks), but in the respect and compliance of their zillions of users and vendors. Amazon’s business model is fiendishly simple; it relies on your unwillingness to burn calories. This provides a massively powerful advantage over traditional retailers which require you to walk places, drive stuff, possibly not get everything you want, and interact with humans. Also, Amazon’s fucknormous customer base and meh-whatever approach to ethical labor practices allows them to pass the savings (and hidden increase of your carbon footprint) right on to you!
But Amazon’s power depends on the willingness of its fiefdom to participate. For a company with a shout-out-loud devotion to customer satisfaction, their worst fear on a macro level is when customers’ desire to participate in a more civilized and ethical marketplace overcomes their resistance to put on pants and go to the store. Which is certainly a possibility when Amazon deliberately obfuscates the customer’s ability to purchase Hachette titles, as they have, versus just pull the products entirely (as they did with Macmillan in 2010). It’s the difference between the pharmacy saying sorry they’re out of Vicodin for the moment, and them saying that yep they totally have your prescription, it’s all ready, but they just can’t and won’t find it, so have you tried codeine? We have codeine! Free shipping?
Plus, once a vendor’s willingness to fight for a greater margin overcomes their need to kowtow to Amazon’s demands so as to maintain said margin, well, that’s also a problem for Amazon. Not to mention that people looking for books on Amazon also buy other shit, and without the first taste of book, they won’t be nearly as much on the Amazon needle. So not only does Amazon want to get paid, but they want to be loved, and feared.
Look, does Amazon allow “good” things to happen (disabled people now have access to products they otherwise wouldn’t! Well-written Kindle Singles! Democratized product reviewing! Expansion of smaller vendors/retailers customer base!)? Sure. Do I use it? Yeah sometimes. Does that make me a lazy fuck? Mostly. Am I okay with that? Basically. Does that make me wonder how many other shameful qualities in myself I’m in denial about and will one day have to deal with in a weeping rush of horror, hopefully not during an acid trip or in earshot of my boss? Constantly.
HACHETTE: Hachette wants to get paid. They want the ephemeral ideas that they foster from infancy to the loading dock/USB port to be consumed by an eager public, and they also want to keep making the same profits they were making in the Before Time, when Amazon hadn’t yet upended the bookstore model and Penguin and Random House hadn’t yet banged like the MUTOs in Godzilla. And they want their ebooks to be a profitable enterprise, because they’re cheaper to produce and distribute, and they’re also more profitable for the publisher; authors make less royalties on ebooks than pbooks, there’s no shipping or warehousing or physical production costs (not to downplay the hard work done by my colleagues in ebook production) (that’s your boss’ job) (BURN)
Like the other big houses that settled with the DOJ, Hachette is approaching the renegotiation of their Amazon contract as a watershed moment, and not one with any wiggle room. Their terms with Amazon (how to determine wholesale cost, how to provide co-op) don’t just dictate how to allocate resources toward p- vs ebooks and forecast revenue, but they dictate the future of Amazon’s control over the publishing industry as we know it. People really like to throw around the “this will determine the FUTURE OF BOOKS AND PUBLISHING AS WE KNOW IT”, as if things that actually do this don’t happen all the time, but in this case, it’s true. Anyone who’s part of a union during contract negotiations with management knows this scenario; labor asks for X, management asks for anti-X, the two meet somewhere in the middle after years of negotiation with labor saying “yeah we need this” and management saying “sorry, we don’t have that” and labor saying “well show us the books where it says you don’t have that” and management says “haha, nice try, proles” and hopefully the new contract isn’t worse than the previous one. And with bookselling it’s a much dicier process because people don’t buy books the ways they used to or in the quantities they used to.
But most people don’t work at Hachette (or in publishing) – so let’s expand the scope a little.
READERS: Readers want new books. And readers are everywhere – in publishing, in bookstores, in Amazon, in trains, on planes, in the White House, in homeless shelters – and while our interests certainly intersect with our professional and/or financial realities, what we want are new books. It’s not like there’s no non-Amazonian way to get Hachette titles right now (see: Wal-Mart, B&N, Powell’s, dating a Hachette employee) but unless we’ve got our hearts set on Hachette-specific authors or titles, we’re going to get our fix somewhere else. In the long term, it’s in a reader’s best interest to have multiple competing publishers, big and small, on the scene; it encourages a greater and more risky variety of books and authors and it means that more human capital is being expended in the creation and production of those books, which means you’re not getting the same editors choosing the same books from the same agents until the New Arrivals section at the bookstore looks like something out of Repo Man.
But consumption is to American capitalism as bacon is to breakfast sandwiches and therefore the consumer’s immediate needs are often met without accounting for long-term consequences. That’s what the DOJ lawsuit was about; it alleged that publishers and Apple were fixing prices to maintain ebook sales and profits while pissing on the zeitgeist’s need for cheaper and cheaper books. So is there a way to maintain customer satisfaction, publishing profits and productivity, and availability and access of books? (Aside from some sort of middle-out cultural shift that makes the idea of dropping $28.99 on a hardcover as valid as dropping a couple hundo on Kanye West’s shoes?) Yes, but you need to also account for:
AUTHORS: Who, like everyone else in the business want to get paid. And paid enough. And beyond that, want to keep writing, and be published (and published again). Now, unless you’re James Patterson (who delivered a strongly worded rebuke of Amazon from atop his palanquin made entirely out of paper-mache’d 100-dollar bills and bore by four sweating, nameless “co-authors”) or any of the other hilariously rich and successful authors who have the luxury to talk about this dispute the way most of us in the first world talk about drones (with emotion but no urgent skin in the game), the dispute is a problem and while it may level the playing field for some of the little guys in the short-term, it’s ultimately about who calls the shots re: an author’s success; one big gatekeeper or another big gatekeeper. Amazon’s not exactly flourishing at the publishing game but they do provide access to a much greater readership than any other retailer, and if the publisher’s power is swatted down, then the author loses both the support of a publisher (whose argument against self-publishing is that they have the resources and professionals to deliver greater sales and exposure) and the support of the consumer. As Hachette said in a recent statement, “By preventing its customers from connecting with these authors’ books, Amazon indicates that it considers books to be like any other consumer good. They are not.”
Is that true? Well, yes and no. Books are like any consumer good in that they are bought and sold for money. They’re created by creators, bought by readers, and consumed in the process. But their value is not set; instead, it’s fought for like the value of any other good. Seattle just enacted the highest minimum wage in the country. Is it possible that the minimum-wage jobs being paid 15 bucks an hour are less valuable than that? Clearly yes, but value is not an inherent quantity based on how much you benefit your customer and superior; it’s also based on your negotiating power and perceived indispensability. If there is a governing body that says “fuck it, pay ‘em 15 bucks an hour” with an eye toward lower and middle class prosperity underpinning a greater social experience for everyone, and they pass a law, then it doesn’t matter if you “should” be making $7 an hour and that experience would embolden you to bootstrap your ass to a better and more satisfying gig.
So yes, books are a consumer good; but unlike, say, a spatula or a piece of cheese, books are self-replicating (people are inspired to write by reading) and they impact consumers on every level from spiritual to practical, in a sometimes slow but holistic fashion. The personal computer is not “any other consumer good” because it completely overhauled the way humans do shit, and so have books, and so do books. The author’s interest is having the power to fight for their books and the social and legal contracts in place to ensure a partnership with more powerful entities who profess to do the same, and I mean a PARTNERSHIP. And right now plenty of authors and publishers and agents and readers are not sure how this is gonna pan out but they’re looking at Hachette and thinking:
We all want to get paid. But we all need to be compensated. There’s a difference. Keep watching the skies, everyone.
“Peggy Carter may not have any superpowers, but if you look at Captain America: The First Avenger, it’s as much of a heroic origin story for her as it is for Steve Rogers. In fact, in that regard it subverts one of the most overused tropes in the action movie genre: the fridged girlfriend. Instead of rescuing his love interest from a supervillain or having to avenge her death, Captain America’s motivation is tied up in the kidnap and eventual death of his friend Bucky. So while Peggy Carter is technically his love interest (or alternatively, Steve is hers), from a storytelling perspective she’s more like an authority figure than a traditional female romantic lead. And from the point of view of her life story, Steve Rogers himself is the “fridged girlfriend.” If you interpret the movie as Peggy’s origin story as a hero, Steve is the love interest who dies too young, inspiring for her to forge ahead with her life and become one of the founders of S.H.I.E.L.D., thus changing the Marvel universe forever.”
“Your body is the piece of the Universe you’ve been given.”
“The unread story is not a story; it is little black marks on wood pulp. The reader, reading it, makes it live: a live thing, a story.”
I’m talking with a boy. He’s at that age when the edges of the man he will become are just starting to press against his baby-round face. He’s got his first opinions and ideas and jokes, which are horrible, because there is nothing that boys his age love more than corny jokes. There is a whole industry of knock-knock-joke books for boys this age. Everything about him is gangly; his voice and his limbs fit awkwardly, like hand-me-downs. He’s young enough that his smile is easy, and he is the kind of boy who finds reasons to smile in everything: the cracking of his voice, a fire-engine siren, the fact that a grown-up is talking to him and listening to what he says. When I talk with kids like this, our conversations always seem to go the same way:
“So you’re telling me these are all the books published last year for kids?” they ask me. “That’s a lot of books. That’s more books than I could read in a year.”
There was something missing. I saw that these characters, these lives, were not mine.
“Yep, it’s a few thousand.”
“And in all of those thousands of books, I’m just not in them?”
“Are there books about talking animals?”
“And crazy magical futures?”
“And superpowers? And the olden days when people dressed funny? And all the combinations of those things? Like talking animals with superpowers in magical futures … but no me?”
“Because you’re brown.””
Gandalf checks his emails (behind the scenes in the set of the Hobbit)