Books written by Ray Sullivan

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Should self published authors be concerned about the Amazon/Hachette dispute?

Nobody outside of Amazon and Hachette knows the fine details about their current dispute, despite the war of words and deeds being very public. At the popular book level readers are finding it difficult to find, order, pre-order or buy books by authors such as J K Rowling (under her pen name Robert Galbraith), Malcolm Gladwell and James Patterson. Gladwell has broken ranks with many of his Hachette co-authors in public, speaking critically about Amazon. His view is that although Amazon sales have made him a lot of money in the past years, they've also made Amazon a lot too. He feels their dispute is treating him unfairly, given the money Amazon have made out of him to date. Most affected authors are not speaking out publicly in case Amazon targets them long term. I think that's unlikely, but for the majority of Hachette authors who probably eke out a marginal income from their books (the median annual income for traditionally published British authors is estimated at £11000, according to recent research) the risks of upsetting Amazon are very real.

Patterson has been outspoken, too. He's pointed out the risks we face if Amazon gets a monopoly in every field it dabbles in, and lets be honest, there are very few fields it doesn't dabble in. He calls Amazon's attempt at forming monopolies 'a national tragedy'.

The dispute has happened because of a court ruling that determined that Hachette and the other four big publishers in America had colluded with Apple over pricing. Part of the ruling stated that publishers had to renegotiate with retailers like Amazon and Apple, taking into account the findings of the case. Hachette are the first of the big five to engage in these negotiations. If Amazon get their way with Hachette then it is likely that their subsequent negotiations with the remainder will be easier for them. It would appear that Amazon have seen the negotiations as an opportunity to leverage a deal that reaps them a lot of additional money and to erode the sales base of their competitors.

So, should self published authors care? As I've said in another recent post, the relatively high cost of Hachette books makes our self published books look more like a bargain. But let's not forget that behind all traditionally published books lie an army of editors, formatter, designers, marketers and the myriad other actors that play a part to get a book into a bookshop. Because we tend to carry out these activities ourselves we tend to forget that they are a value adding element of all books.  In part this is because many self published authors produce highly creditable book covers, write effective blurb and engage in reasonable levels of self promotion.  We also tend to do a reasonable job of editing, but probably miss the cutting insight of a professional editor who makes a good book great.  The detail management of our books is also generally good if rarely perfect, however I've read a lot of ebooks via the big five lately and the typos are unfortunately too frequent, so perhaps us loners are on or near a par.  Marketing is probably our weakest point, I can't afford to take out full page advertisements in national newspapers and most, if not all, book reviewers are and probably always will be, unaware of my books.

Let's be brutally honest.  If Hachette or one of the other major publishers showed an interest in publishing our books, most of us would give it serious consideration.  Sure, some well established authors such as Stephen King are moving the other way, probably in an attempt to strengthen their negotiating positions with the industry, but they are doing this from a position of financial security.  This isn't to say there's anything wrong with self publishing; I'm proud of the movement and the effect all of us are having on the industry collectively, but I think there is still a strong place for the traditional publishers too.  Their models may be dated and they will need to change the way they deal with authors and retailers, but they are needed.  A world of only self published books is as unhealthy as the one that treated self publishing as worthless vanity, a world that we left only a few years ago.

So we do need to care about the current dispute?  The problem is that we don't know exactly where the sticking points are, what the terms Amazon are trying to achieve.  But in the absence of hard facts it is not unreasonable to assume that Amazon are trying to railroad the publishers and long term that won't be great for authors or consumers, even if there is a short to mid term advantage in book pricing for consumers. I think we should care and we should do something about this. Individually we are but nothing; collectively we are kings. I think we should send Amazon a message, not an email such as it sent us attempting to procure our services to do its dirty work, but a collective statement that hurts Amazon where they care, in their wallet.

About 18 month ago I blogged about this, just after the DoJ ruling, and looked at the issue from self published authors.  I suggested we could present some passive resistance to Amazon by suspending our books for a week at a time, not just me and a few friends but a whole army of self pubbed authors.  You can read the blog post here.  The post was well read, but the reaction was muted to say the least.  A temporary boycott needs to be in numbers that Amazon will take notice of, so how about we revisit the concept.  Perhaps traditionally published authors would like to consider joining in too?

Let's set a date, 1st September push the unpublish button on your dashboard for all of your books and leave them unpublished for a week.  If you want to take part in a bit of active resistance then push this blog post out to all your author friends on your network.  Let's start #boycottamazon on Twitter to see if there is any support out there.  Email me at to pledge support.  Let's make a difference.

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