The Dispute Continues…

The author debate over the Amazon vs. Hachette business disagreement proceeds apace. The latest volley is an impassioned though civil discussion between J.A. Konrath, a staunch supporter of Amazon, and Lee Child, a very visible signatory of Authors United, and which was featured as an entry on Konrath’s blog on Thursday, September 25. It is worth reading, if you are at all interested.

I see strengths and weaknesses with the positions of both sides. Where I am having a problem, however, is the proposition that Amazon is doing something wrong or evil by refusing in some cases to sell Hachette books by pre-order (or at all). Permit me to draw a comparison with another product: there is a type of breakfast food that my wife likes; let’s call it “Flavored Cardboard to Go.” Six-count boxes of multiple flavors of this product were readily available at all of the supermarkets within a three mile radius of our home. I would buy a box or two during the course of my weekly shopping trip with the result being happy wife, happy home. That is, until one day when…it wasn’t available. I asked at each supermarket and was told that the item had been discontinued. But that wasn’t exactly accurate. The grocery supplier that serviced the supermarkets locally to me was no longer carrying it because…well, they just were no longer carrying it. Being the resourceful type, I checked the website of the company which manufactures the product and discovered that a certain national chain which I normally don’t patronize (let’s call it “Bullseye”) carried the item. They don’t have a store near us, but there is one I pass occasionally while out and about causing trouble. I will accordingly stop in every six weeks or so, stock up on Flavored Cardboard to Go, and all is well in the House of Hartlaub. Have I been a bit inconvenienced? Yes. But big whoop. There was no evil involved, however. A company and a distributor stopped doing business with each other and another company filled the vacuum. Nothing more or less was involved. 
I don’t see any difference between my experience in my role as hunter-gatherer and the current dispute between Amazon and Hachette. One can go to Barnes & Noble (or visit its fine, sparkling website which leaps to one’s command at a keystroke or two) or Wal-Mart, or, as they say, wherever books are sold (including Hachette’s own website) and buy or order any Hachette book you want, so long as it’s in print. Amazon hasn’t choked off the supply. You just can’t purchase certain Hachette books there at the moment. There was actually a similar dispute between Simon & Schuster and Barnes & Noble last year — bet you forgot about that, didn’t you? — where Barnes & Noble was cast as Simon Legree because they stopped selling S & S books when the two entities couldn’t come to terms. Again, Barnes & Noble didn’t shut off the supply. One could buy from other outlets. One DID buy from other outlets. The dispute was ultimately settled and things rolled on, until now.

Word: what is happening is a business dispute. It will get resolved at some point. It’s not a hero vs. villain issue, and casting it as such is a diversion, pure and simple. My questions for you, however, is…have you had trouble buying books published by Hachette? Has the dispute, and its fallout, changed your book buying habits? Other than in the abstract, do you even care?
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42 thoughts on “The Dispute Continues…

  1. I don’t even know how many, if any, of the books i have purchased in recent months are published by Hachette or not. I don’t buy based on publisher, I buy based on author. Therefore if a book I want is not available on Amazon i will find another way to get it. Case closed, end of story, no worries.

    That said, I did recently buy a new hatchet and did not find it any more troublesome than purchasing the hatchet for which it was a replacement over 20 years ago.

    The new one is a tomahawk actually, a SOG Tactical Tomahawk that is the perfect camping/hunting/survival tool / bad-ass medeival weapon…very cool. Click the link to see it.

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  2. Basil, you bring up an excellent point, which is that most readers could give a flying fig about who publishes what book. There are exceptions — I read everything that Hard Case Crime publishes, and I don’t think I’ve ever read a bad book published by Soho Crime — but most folks can’t tell one publisher from another because they don’t care. I’m also finding that a growing number of younger readers don’t even know authors, only series, but that’s a discussion for another time.

    BTW, I found several hatchets for sale on Amazon, so I guess the dispute is over! Please disregard today’s post. Let us know how your new purchase works. Wouldn’t you love to display THAT to a prospective carjacker!

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  3. Joe, like Basil, the name of the publisher never factors into my choice of book purchases. I go by my favorite authors and/or recommendations from others. Sort of like buying a gallon of milk. I don’t care what the name of the dairy is, only that it came from a cow.

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    • Joe, I actually pay more attention to the editor who navigated the book through the publishing process, as opposed to the publisher. I am certainly in the minority here; I would guess that most readers are barely aware of the presence of an editor. However, if I for example am aware that Keith Kahla (to name but one) at Minotaur edited a particular new book, I read that book; I am certain that it will be readworthy. Most of the time, however, I find new books the way that you mentioned: familiarity with the author or recommendations from a variety of sources. As for that milk you mentioned…it brought an old saying concerning price, demand and ownership which those of us of a certain age might recall but which I won’t repeat here! Thanks!

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    • Thanks for your plug for editors, Joe! Then there’s the advice a top-notch editor might give, even repeatedly, to an author that is ignored… And readers who read the book might not realize that any perceived weaknesses were in fact noticed and flagged by the editor (or editors), but the author chose to disregard their advice…

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    • Jodi, thank you for your kind words and your editorial efforts! Editors are friends to both readers and authors and wear many hats in the publishing process. We need you! Thanks

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  4. Joe, thanks for the post. And thanks for keeping us informed. I barely keep my head above water with my day job. Without your (and other contributors at TKZ) updates, I would be clueless.

    The Konrath – Child discussion was very informative and interesting. Thanks for the link.

    Like others above, I don’t pay attention to the publisher when I buy books. I survey the topic when buying nonfiction. I look for an author when buying fiction. So if I’ve had trouble buying books from Hachette, I wasn’t even aware of it.

    As for the long term, I’m glad you and Konrath and others are keeping an eye on the dispute. With the trend going the way it is in publishing, I could see a day when Amazon becomes too powerful…unless it has competitors.

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    • Steve, thanks for your kind words. And you bring up an interesting point, indirectly, which applies to a number of things: what, in any particular context, is “too powerful?” What is the tipping point, as it were? And what are the foreseeable unintended consequences of holding back or penalyzing a successful company which is engaged in lawful enterprise? Those questions among many others are the type that will have to be addressed on a case-by-case basis. I thought that Joe and Lee did good job of discussing their respective positions, though again, I don’t think either of them is entirely “right” or “wrong.” At some point, I would guess that one side or the other will blink. Or maybe not. In any event, thanks as always for visiting and commenting.

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  5. Joe, you hit the proverbial nail on the noggin. I’ve echoed your sentiments that this is “not personal, only business.” It truly is, and we can only wonder how it will be settled. If it IS settled. I don’t see that happening. I see both parties waiting this out, seeing how it affects the bottom line and whether or not conditions change. With all the PR missives that have been fired, I’m not sure either party is willing to concede anything any time soon.

    There is part of this that is entertaining in a cage match kind of way. But it’s also sad. You reference the Konrath – Child exchange. Both men are strong, able and articulate reps of their positions. Many of the comments from the sidelines are, well, adding fuel to that fire with less than, shall we say, civility.

    What makes me sad is seeing the fellowship of writers torn asunder. We are eating our own now, and in public. The divide seems almost certain to persist even if this matter does reach some sort of conclusion.

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  6. Jim, thank you, but YOU hit the nail on the head with your last paragraph. I’ve always enjoyed the camaraderie among authors at conferences, meetings, etc. and I’m concerned about the ill will and bad feeling that is going to linger in the aftermath of all of this, and not merely among authors but among the publishers and Amazon, as well. Thanks again.

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  7. Funny that you should use cereal as your metaphor, Joe. This whole kaboddle can be traced back to cereal in a way.

    Ian Ballantine, founder of Bantam, was a visionary much in the mold of Jeff Bezo. He created the mass market paperback and was vilified at the time by Authors Guild and the industry, who claimed it would kill publishing. Well, it didn’t. It revitalized it. Ballantine was also a master marketer who understood that books could be marketed as commodities so he spearheaded the system we now know as co-op advertising (the symbiotic relationship whereby publishers pay stores like B&N for prime shelf placement). Ballantine based his model on cereal sales…ie, there’s a reason Kellogg’s Corn Flakes are placed at eye level while Joe’s Flavored Cardboard is at the bottom. Hachette is pissed that Amazon withholds its prime “shelf space” but Hachette has embraced the same strategy for decades with bookstores.

    Ballantine died in 1994. Amazon was founded a year later. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

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    • Kris, thanks so much for the history lesson on book retailing and how it relates to retailing in general. My first real job was in a supermarket, and I never really gave much thought to shelf space, end caps, etc. What an eye opener working in the real world was! “Oh, so Kelloggs PAYS to be the first block of cereals on the aisle?!” (or Hatchette pays to have those displays in B & N?). You bet! And your last sentence sums the situation up perfectly, in any language.

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  8. Oh my gosh, thank you thank you THANK YOU for posting this. I am so sick of hearing about this debate on all my blogs, but this really hit the nail on the head. It’s so so true.

    I’m gonna go share this everywhere and hopefully people will stop freaking out about it so much.

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    • R.A., I know exactly what you mean. I almost wrote about an entirely different topic because the deeper I got into this one the more tired and depressed I became. I’m glad that the posts and comments resonated with you. Thanks for commenting and sharing.

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  9. And all those Hachette books are available via Amazon. Only pre-order has been shut off because why should the supermarket make commitments to deliver cereal when it doesn’t have an agreement and weeks/months from now may not be in business with the distributor at all.

    Supermarket in question also still sells said cereal, but acts only as the middle-man, forwarding orders to the suppliers who must send the cereal out themselves. So your cardboard-to-go may take longer to get to you.

    Ah, but supermarket also no longer puts your cereal on sale. They charge the price you put on the box and this makes you angry . . .

    Great post, sums it up nicely. The fact that this dispute exists and that there is a Random Penguin named Harper MacMillan in the shadows watching is part of the reason I decided to self-pub.

    Terri

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    • Terri, re: Cardboard to Go, there wasn’t an SRP on the box, and the company which makes it (a household name) has its other products on the shelves of all of the supermarkets. I still can’t make sense of it. I just hope Bullseye doesn’t stop selling it.

      You’re spot on about other players — on both the publishing and retailing sides —watching from the sidelines to see how all of this shakes out. Thanks as always for stopping by and contributing.

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  10. Thanks for your excellent post, Joe, written in an engaging, entertaining style. Love your example with cereal!

    I understand that some people are worried that Amazon is becoming too powerful, but as an indie author I’m so grateful that Amazon established a free, user-friendly process for me to publish my books, which have been earning great reviews and paying me steady royalties for over two years now. It’s obvious to me that Amazon puts readers and authors first (in that order), which is how it should be!

    Thanks again for an illuminating post.

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  11. Jodie, thank you again. You indirectly touched on something that I didn’t mentioned which is that Amazon is, at its most basic, a merchant. While it has to maintain a good relationship with the supplier(s), it absolutely must put its customers first. And — all elements of this business dispute aside — Amazon does an excellent job with its customers, particularly in terms of price and service after the sale. I would submit that, at bottom line, those are the primary interests (though not the only ones) of most book buyers. Thanks again!

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    • Absolutely, Joe. As a reader and consumer, I appreciate being able to buy books at a reasonable price, and as an author I love how Amazon promotes my books in various ways on an ongoing basis, and keeps coming up with innovative deals for readers to entice them to buy more books.

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  12. Thanks for this post. It’s just business! I so tire of the crazy back and forth about this, demonizing Amazon. And when the authors jumped on the bandwagon, I shook my head. I never looked at who published a book before . . . but suddenly I catch myself doing it . .. to see if it’s a Hachette author. I can count on one hand the authors who I will ferret out if their book is not on Amazon. There’s just too much good reading out there to go through the trouble otherwise. But the bottom line is it’s pure business, and the flack about books not being widgets, and how they are art and not products, is bunk. I will buy some books like your Cardboard To Go, but not many. And those books might just wind up being the books I buy at Christmas, when I take the extra effort to find THAT gift. But the rest of the year? I might settle for the generic Cardboard To Go, or its competitor.

    This, after all, is business, and as a reader my life isn’t going to revolve around a manufacturer’s temper tantrum.

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  13. Excellent point taken for sure, Hope. We have an embarrassment of riches with respect to the quality of new books which become available during any particular week. Joe Konrath touches on this briefly in his response to Lee as well. Readers will find something else to read if their favorite author retires or they can’t get the author’s books. I can (but I won’t) name four different authors who for various reasons won’t be publishing books for the foreseeable future, if ever. I didn’t stop reading when they no longer published new books, any more than I stopped listening to music in 1974 after Nick Drake died. I found other books to read. I’m not saying (and you and Joe aren’t either) that, say, any mystery book is interchangeable with another. But there will be other ones out there and people find them and find ones that they like. Thanks!

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  14. For those “denied access” for many years by trad publishing, but who now have a real alternative, it’s not hard to pick a horse in this race. My guess is that a strictly-business issue has been turned into a moral crisis, in order to deflect the argument away from what’s actually–and obviously–best for authors.

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  15. Barry, that’s a great observation. There’s an adage in the practice of law that states “if the law is against you, argue equity; if equity is against you, argue the law; and if both the law and equity are against you, call the other side names.” That may be what we are seeing here. Thank you!

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  16. I know what you mean, Joe. Ithe semi like hogwash to me. All this evil business. My grocery just stopped caring Dove chocolate, the individually wrapped ones with the little messages inside. Hello, Basil, are you with me on this? So we looked high and low in this little Montana town before finding another inconveniently located store. Yunno? Like THIS is really evil.

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  17. Yeah, Basil, when did an action which resulted in inconvenience for some, though still possible to fulfill— especially when applied to an action motivated by wanting, as opposed to honest to God NEEDING — become equated with evil or imputed to bad intent? I have a problem with that.

    BTW, I was unaware that Dove made chocolates like that, with little messages inside. Thanks a tip of the fedora for the 411, just in time for Sweetest Day. I assume they are good messages, not “I’m running off with your sister. Sorry.”?

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    • Hmmm, Joe. What if some nutter snuck into the chocolate factory and started writing reaally nasty notes and threats on the inside of the candy wrappers?

      But absolutely check them out. Now all we can get here are Dove bars with not so much as a “Boy, howdy” on the inside of the wrapper.

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    • I think it might have been 1989, Adam, when something like that happened with a baseball card manufacturer. A professional baseball player had been given a somewhat uncomplimentary yet cheerfully obscene name by his teammates and a run of his baseball card was printed with the nickname displayed in magic marker on the bottom of his bat handle. Instant collectors’ item. Thanks, though, I will check those Dove Promises, as they are called. I just went to the website, and they are not sold within a 50 mile radius of where I live. They are available, however, via, uh, Amazon.

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  18. Personally I’m not a huge fan of Amazon, but this is simply a business dispute, nothing more, nothing less. It certainly saddens me that so much drama is surrounding what is pretty much a standard part of the game. There are plenty of other places to get Hachette books, and I doubt in the long term (perhaps in the short term though) that any of the authors will lose their shirts over this if they are smart about it.

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  19. Absolutely, Laura. Thanks for mentioning that. Amazon, so far as I am able to tell, is not the exclusive purveyor of any general class of goods; there are plenty of alternatives, and with many of them the price difference of equal goods from different vendors is negligible.

    As far as authors losing their shirts…I don’t get that argument from the Authors United side, given that almost all authors are paid an advance which is recovered against royalties at a rate (percentage) equal to the (theoretical) payment of royalties. If the advance isn’t recovered the author does not have to pay back the balance due; and it takes quite a while, in most cases, for a publisher to recover the advance (due to the low recovery percentage per dollar per sale). How, then, does the state of this dispute in its current form harm authors, particularly mid-list authors, who won’t see royalty checks for months, if not years, from the point in time that their books are published?

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  20. I just checked the evil supermarket and looked up one of my fav writers who happens to be an AU signatory and pubbed by Hatchette.

    His latest book:

    Hardcover: Available and in stock for full cover price.

    Ebook: Available for download at full cover price.

    Paperback: Not released in this format yet.

    Audiobook: Available for download and in CD, in stock and ready to ship for full cover price.

    OMG, Amazon is evil . . .

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  21. Thank you for that research, Terri. I was inspired to do the same thing and checked the new books of a couple of other Hachette authors, with the same results.

    The evil supermarket, huh? I’m glad I didn’t have coffee in my mouth when I read that. It would have been all over the keyboard. It sounds like one of those Halloween houses that spring up this time of year! Thanks!

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  22. I did read the interchange between Konrath and Childs, and was appalled at the tone of Childs’ comments. I didn’t see an ounce of humility or gratitude in his comments. I’m now, let us say ‘reluctant’ to buy his books.

    However, many discussions about the dispute descend into the ridiculous on occasion. It’s not that I don’t care about the future of books and authors’ incomes – I do – but blaming Amazon seems misplaced.

    Which is not to say that big companies don’t abuse their power or place in the market, just that so far, in my opinion, we don’t have much evidence that Amazon has, or will, abuse authors.

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  23. Let me say, Sheryl, that Lee possesses a certain…confidence… if you will, in his pronouncements (on this and other subjects) that is born at least in part from the undeniable evidence that he is very, very good at what he does. That being said — and without going to the merits of his statements — Lee has been and is extremely generous with his time and efforts in promoting and assisting new authors, not only visibly but also behind the scenes, and all without fanfare or any material benefit to himself. Certainly that doesn’t put an affirmative duty on anyone to buy/read his books, but if you (and by “you” I mean Sheryl and anyone else out there) are currently enjoying them I would ask that you not let the tone of his remarks in the ongoing debate get in the way of that.

    I am TOTALLY on the same page with you about the depths of the descent the discussions on this topic have occasionally reached over the past few months. The announcement this week that Authors Unlimited was requesting that the Department of Justice launch an anti-trust investigation against Amazon is, I believe, the worst of it to date. I agree with you; there’s no evidence of author abuse at the hands of Amazon.
    Thanks for taking the time to read Joe’s and Lee’s comments, my post, and giving us your own perspective.

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  24. Well, I am still sewing over Tom C. playing Jack R. in that movie. Of course, if you pretend that the character is named Shorty O’Brien or something, then the movie works just fine.

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    • That was entirely a business decision, not an artistic one, Adam. Cruise offered a great deal of money for the rights, and the amount was accepted. Cruise wanted to play Reacher and payed for the privilege. And so it goes.
      Now…if it were up to ME…I think Liam Neeson would have been absolutely freakin’ perfect in the role. He has the size, the look, and the demeanor. But. It wasn’t my character.
      BTW, I am howling over the Shorty O’Brien comment. Thanks!

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