Since 1948, Highlights for Children (“Fun With a Purpose”) — a magazine most of us have only ever encountered in pediatricians’ waiting rooms — has featured a cartoon called “Goofus and Gallant.” Intended to teach kids the basics of courteous behavior, it stars two boys who illustrate the right and wrong way to behave in various situations. “Goofus and Gallant” has gone on to inspire some dark adult imaginings, but never before has it seemed so perfectly applicable to the book business.
That’s because lately Amazon has become the Goofus of publishing news, the surly, inconsiderate and gauche kid who never seems to get anything right. This is not to say that Amazon is any less powerful in the marketplace or less likely to triumph in its ongoing war against book publishers. But on the P.R. front, in its most recent battle against the Hachette Book Group, the online retailer has stumbled again and again.
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Amazon has long been a tight-lipped operation, refusing to release hard information to the press (which to this day has never received figures on just how many Kindle e-readers the company has sold) and communicating through the rather arcane medium of the forums on its own site. This strategy, however, was patently inadequate to the sudden onslaught of high-profile bad press. It kept coming, too, zeroing in not just on the company’s dealings with book publishers, but also on its impact on the economy and its own workforce.
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All of these criticisms forced Amazon to respond in a fashion to which it was not accustomed: via public statements issued to the press and direct communication (i.e., email) to customers. Its lack of experience in such communications showed. When Publishers Weekly approached the retailer for comment on a conversation between Grandinetti and Preston in which Grandinetti reportedly asked Preston to quiet his protest, an Amazon spokesperson accused Hachette of using its authors as “human shields,” a highly untimely bit of hyperbole. Another spokesperson told the Guardian that Preston was “entitled” and an “opportunist.” Of course, Preston had himself described Amazon’s behavior as “thuggish,” but public relations is not a rational art; insults that sound merely intemperate from the mouth of a novelist in a shed (a New York Times article on the petition came with a photo of Preston standing in his “writing shack”) register as ominous and bullying as part of the official response of a gigantic corporation.
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Yet Amazon does have its partisans — specifically, the authors who use its self-publishing programs and whose books are published by its imprints. Nearly 8,000 of these signed a verbose petition at Change.org calling for Hachette to capitulate. (If there were ever a document to suggest that self-published writers are insufficiently edited, it’s this one, even though it begins with a promise to be concise.)
This is Amazon’s core constituency, one whose loyalty is fueled by gratitude for the technological innovation that has permitted them to publish their e-books and also by loathing for the publishing “oligopoly” that has denied them publication the old-fashioned way. The Readers United letter, with its misquoted Orwell, its bitter asides (“Well … history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme”) and its vaguely conspiratorial/messianic tone (“the powerful interests of the status quo are hard to move”) may sound like “full-out crazy town” to Eldritch, but it is the native tongue of the indie author community.
Amazon much resembles a political party that hasn’t figured out how to recalibrate its rhetoric to appeal to voters outside its base. Its pronouncements come in Amazonspeak, a language bred in a corporate echo chamber and the cheerleading threads of its self-publisher forums. Hence, its incessant harping on the fact that Hachette is owned by the “$10 billion global conglomerate” the Lagardère Group — itself dwarfed by Amazon’s own $90-billion valuation.
Link to the rest at Salon and thanks to Patricia for the tip.
People who are associated with Big Publishing have the idea that the public is fascinated with stories about Big Publishing.
In this case, the author of the Salon piece appears to have published a book with Hachette, a fact she fails to note in her piece. So if she’s fascinated by Amazon/Hachette, everybody else must be similarly fascinated.
The New York Times is also fascinated, but, despite its reputation, the NYT doesn’t reach a very large number of people - 1,865,315 daily; (including 1,133,923 digital) according to the best info PG found on the web. For comparison, the population of the United States is over 318 million.
So, even if every subscriber to the NYT cared about Amazon/Hachette (a vanishingly unlikely prospect), NYT articles about Amazon/Hachette would reach about one-half of one percent of the population of the US.
For comparison with NYT circulation, 11.8 million people watch Duck Dynasty. Almost ten times as many people pay attention to the Robertson family as pay attention to the NYT. If Phil Robertson ever weighs in on Hachette’s side, maybe Amazon would be worried. (For overseas visitors, you probably won’t understand Duck Dynasty. It’s an American thing.)
Let’s take this one item at a time:
1. Nobody cares about Hachette.
2. Amazon is the single most admired brand among US consumers.
3. Amazon is still growing at a rapid pace, so US consumers, including US readers, are voting for Amazon with their dollars.
4. Barnes & Noble’s sales are shrinking and it is closing stores on a regular basis. Indie bookstores (bless their hearts) can’t and won’t make up for the sales decline at Barnes & Noble. The value for an author in signing with a traditional publisher, including Hachette, in order to get his/her books into bookstores is on a steep and steady decline.
5. The traditional model of publishing is in a downward spiral. How fast it’s going down is up for debate, but the overall share of books sold by tradpub is shrinking.
6. More importantly, tradpub is leaking authors to self-publishing. The share of royalties paid to authors by tradpub is declining and the share of royalties paid to self-pubbed authors by Amazon and others is increasing.