Home » Amazon, Big Publishing » The war on Amazon is Big Publishing’s 1% moment. What about other writers?

The war on Amazon is Big Publishing’s 1% moment. What about other writers?

4 June 2014

From Barry Eisler via The Guardian:

As an author of ten novels – legacy-published, self-published, and Amazon-published – I’m bewildered by the anti-Amazon animus among various establishment writers. James Patterson pays for full-page ads in the New York Times and Publishers Weekly, demanding that the US government intervene and do something (it’s never clear what) about Amazon. Richard Russo tries to frighten authors over Amazon’s”scorched-earth capitalism”. Scott Turow conjures images of the”nightmarish” future that Amazon, “the Darth Vader of the literary world”, has in store for us all. And “Authors Guild” president Roxana Robinson says Amazon is like “Tony Soprano” and “thuggish”.

These are strange things to say about a company that sells more books than anyone. That singlehandedly created a market for digital books,now the greatest source of the legacy publishing industry’s profitability(though of course legacy publishers are sharing little of that newfound wealth with their authors). That built the world’s first viable mass-market self-publishing platform, a platform that has enabled thousands of new authors to make a living from their writing for the first time in their lives. And that pays self-published authors something like five times as much in digital royalties as legacy publishers do.

. . . .

I imagine, for example, that James Patterson really does care passionately about books. But then he conflates an important function – publishing books – with the entity currently providing that function (the legacy industry run by New York’s “Big Five” publishing houses). Whatever challenges he then sees facing the legacy industry (no bookstores! no libraries!) then become challenges to literature itself (no books!). That’s a logical falsehood, of course – akin to believing a challenge to the horse-and-buggy industry is a challenge to transportation itself – but it’s a scary thought and therefore produces an extreme defensive response (government, do something!).

But none of this really makes sense. Literature was being written long before the Big Five began running the industry like a cartel (there’s a reason they’re referred to collectively – it’s how they function). And it will go on being written long after the Big Five either have evolved or been displaced by something better. Why? Because literature isn’t “produced by publishers”, as Patterson claims. Rather, it is written by authors.

. . . .

[I]f Amazon is indeed doing so much to destroy literature and all the rest, if the situation really is so dire that the US government has to pass laws to fix it, why haven’t Patterson, Robinson, Russo, Turow and other anti-Amazon authors demanded that their publishers pull their books from Amazon? How can someone condemn a company’s evil, monopolistic, culture- and livelihood-destroying ways … while continuing to make millions of dollars working with that company?

. . . .

No other bookstore on earth offers Amazon’s selection. So isn’t every other bookstore by definition refusing to stock more books than Amazon does? Why is this OK?

Link to the rest at The Guardian and thanks to Abel for the tip.

Amazon, Big Publishing

61 Comments to “The war on Amazon is Big Publishing’s 1% moment. What about other writers?”

  1. a platform that has enabled thousands of new authors to make a living from their writing for the first time in their lives.

    For this reason alone any advocate or advocacy group that purports to support writers ought to dial back the diatribes, if not clam up completely.

  2. This is…sane.

    *mind boggles*

    The comments, however, are not. (Business as usual.)

    But let’s do a thought experiment assume all the ADS sufferers have a case, under their political, moral and/or economic philosophies. Even if you have concerns about Amazon, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of businesses who do the same if not worse – starting with the Big 5. Why not point the spotlight at them?

    • Because they’re all afraid their contracts won’t be renewed if they point the spotlight where it deserves to be pointed.

      • You’re right about the writers publishing with the Big 5. (Gosh, if only there was another option for them…)

        It’s everyone else that puzzles me. Journalists, online commenters, customers etc. I mean, if the tax practices (for instance) really offend them that much, there are thousands of other companies, and hundreds of politicians, and scores of laws that they could target instead.

        I’m trying to find an answer that doesn’t centre on people being dishonest and/or useful dupes, but hot damn they’re making it hard.

        • Could be that corporate media is all tied together in ways. I know I side-eye WSJ because they’re owned by News Corp, which ties them to HarperCollins. And I thought it was funny that the reporter who covered it in NYT was Farhad Manjoo, whose book’s title is True Enough: Living in a Post-Fact Society, which might reveal much. Publishers Weekly wouldn’t want to spotlight that maybe Hachette’s at fault, given how much business Hachette likely gives them.


          I think many of the online commenters/bloggers get a lot of their facts/points from sources like that. And customers . . . I don’t think they care. Readers couldn’t care less about Hachette, and many probably aren’t even aware there’s negotiation dispute.

          • It is humorous hyperbole to say all, but many, many traditional-media journalists dream of writing a book and being on the Sunday talk shows and doing news tours. Since they see this as the epitome of journalistic achievement and it is only attainable, or so they think, by being published by a Big Publisher, it is unsurprising that they are sympathetic toward tradpub. Add in the fact that most mainstream journalists are extremely Progressive (so mistrust Amazon as a capitalist endeavor) and have an elitist mindset regarding who should be allowed to inform the public, and even without the connections between tradmedia and tradpub, which are very real, it’s not surprising that the bias is so visible.

            • I don’t think it’s fair to say that progressives mistrust Amazon just because it’s a capitalistic endeavor. Many of them are just afraid they’re going to be out of jobs or that their jobs are going to change so much that they won’t want to do them anymore. Many people who are against Amazon, in my opinion, are just incredibly misinformed as to how it works. But some of my progressive friends see Amazon as a welcome change from the crap they’ve had to put up with in trad pub as well and they can’t jump ship fast enough.

              I think it’s fair to say that if trad pub goes down, many thousands of people are going to be out of work. Progressives do tend to worry about issues like that. Even though the economy will be more efficient, even though Amazon will provide jobs for a *lot* of writers, a lot of those people are just not going to be able to adapt to the “new economy.” That’s the kind of thing progressives worry about.

        • Lizzie said: “Gosh, if only there was another option for them…”

          -Loved that.

          As for everyone else’s silence/ignorance/gullibility on this issue: Most journalists are employees of major media companies with a cozy (sometimes incestuous) relationship to the big five. I’m actually astonished on those few occasions when I see a favorable article on self-pub in the lamestream media.

    • Yeah, I read one comment and had to close the window, or else I’d get drawn into a “Someone’s wrong on the Interwebz!” debate. Many cats actually do have gentle, loving personalities, water can flow uphill, and the commenter’s understanding of “global warming” was out of date (I’m personally skeptical of “climate change” being a problem, since the nature of the problem keeps changing every decade or two, but that’s beside the point.)

      The article even had hyperlinked references to its facts.

      *skitters off before she starts jumping into the comments there and trying to shake some sense into people*

  3. Because Barry might show up here reading these comments, I want to say THANK YOU Barry for writing this article. I wish the New York Times would run it as an opinion piece. Have you tried?

    By the way, if I read #6 correctly, Mike Shatzkin says that Hatchette thinks it should get the same cut (70%) as those amateur authors who upload unedited ebooks because Hatchette invests so much more into creating professional quality books.


    Gotta love him calling everyone who isn’t BP an amateur author. *headdesk*

    • I found that to be an interesting argument, actually…until I thought about the terms for us to get that 70%: we have to price our ebooks between $2.99 and $9.99, and most of us do so under $5.

    • The NYT is pretty much a wholly owned subsidiary of the Big Five, isn’t it?

  4. ” Scott Turow conjures images of the”nightmarish” future that Amazon, “the Darth Vader of the literary world”, has in store for us all”

    Oh, crap. That theme music is going to be in my head all day now.

    • I have a bad feeling about this.

    • I work at Amazon, and it’s true: we weekly have company meetings (all 100K of us) behind closed doors in which we all don Darth Vader masks, we play the Darth Vader theme, and Jeff gleefully rubs his hands together and says “who can we use our monopsony power to screw with today??”

      [Or: we are reminded daily that if you’re not obsessed with the customer, you will be asked to find a new employer post haste; that our profit margin is everyone else’s opportunity; and that the “virtuous cycle” strategy of Amazon’s success is to create a flywheel in which we have greater selection, better prices, and better service, each of which serves to reinforce each other.]

  5. If all of your books were taken off Amazon tomorrow, would James Patterson or any other big-name author care?

    So why do you care about their books on Amazon? You don’t.

    Don’t waste a lot of time the rest of the week reading this stuff – it won’t help you finish what you’re working on.

  6. As usual, Barry gives us a well-thought out and articulated article, full of references, on the state of publishing affairs.

    The comments over on the Guardian on the other hand – Amazon Derangement Syndrome is strong with these ones. I continue to be amazed by people’s ability to fail to understand or even recognize logical arguments.

  7. “[I]f Amazon is indeed doing so much to destroy literature and all the rest, if the situation really is so dire that the US government has to pass laws to fix it, why haven’t Patterson, Robinson, Russo, Turow and other anti-Amazon authors demanded that their publishers pull their books from Amazon? How can someone condemn a company’s evil, monopolistic, culture- and livelihood-destroying ways … while continuing to make millions of dollars working with that company?”

    See, this is what I always wonder whenever stuff like this comes up. Amazon is so bad, so evil-minded, going to single-handedly wipe literature from the face of the earth? Then don’t do business with them. Put your money where your mouth is.

    What I think is really behind all of this nonsense is the fact that people are making real money — and more and more it’s darned good real money — without the stamp of approval from big publishing. And without them getting their huge cut of it.

    Boo frickin’ hoo.

    • I don’t think it’s an option for them to just drop Amazon right now. They still want–probably more like need–the money, even if Amazon is “evil.” From their perspective, they’re pissed *because* it’s so hard to avoid using Amazon. And they’re mad because they used to have that kind of power, but that’s less and less true these days.

      The only way they win is if Amazon starts suddenly hemorrhaging customers and those customers go back to the Big Five. That’s unlikely to happen and they seem to know it. They’ve conceded that point already, which is why they go with the whiny PR campaign. What’s most amusing to me is that they seem to think they have more people on their side than they do. They’ve actually pissed off far more writers than they realize (or cared about) and it’s coming back to bite them now.

  8. I’m still not completely clear whether Amazon wants to completely control the ebook market or utterly destroy literature. Those seem to be at odds with one another, but I keep hearing how Amazon is trying to do both.

    • If you want to know what the future looks like, imagine Jeff Bezos grinding a book of Bigfoot porn into a human face… forever.

    • NIce, Dan.

      Although you know, it is certainly possible to do both.

      (1) control the ebook market
      (2) use your control to make it harder for Big Publishing to puts its books front and center, thus cutting into the profits which are used to fund the continuation of literature, instead, allowing equal footing to those pesky unprofessional Indie amateurs and small presses that pollute our literature with 98.9% dreck.

      • Dan and Marc, everyone! The Martin and Lewis of the book world! They’ll be here all week.


      • Wait, but what about crushing indie authors? That’s supposed to happen, too.

        • No, no, no, Dandy Wit! You fail to understand. The ‘Zon will get around to crushing us indie authors once they’re done crushing the Big 5 and THEIR authors.

          Their overall, long-term goal is to crush ALL authors/publishers so they will have nothing bookish to sell.

          Sheesh. Do I gotta ‘splain everything?

          • My traditional author friends are more concerned that Amazon will end up making writing an unprofitable venture for most writers. You know, like the Big Five have done all these years. Isn’t it curious that we probably all grew up hearing that it’s bad to be an author because they make no money (the years before Amazon) and now I hear more and more that people are trying to get into writing to make a “fast buck”, therefore diluting the quality of books? Interesting how things change.

      • What I don’t understand is…how can you claim to be the savior of literature when few people actually read your books? And how many books just sit in bookstores wasting space until they’re returned to be destroyed? Literature is great and all, but it would be more efficient to let the few people who *do* read those books download them instead of letting them gather dust in a store.

    • Maybe they think Amazon will “destroy literature” by putting out a lot of trash (that somehow sells like crazy). At least this seems to be the fear of some authors I know.

  9. “I]f Amazon is indeed doing so much to destroy literature and all the rest, if the situation really is so dire that the US government has to pass laws to fix it, why haven’t Patterson, Robinson, Russo, Turow and other anti-Amazon authors demanded that their publishers pull their books from Amazon?”

    Better yet, why don’t they – and the Big 5 – put their money where their mouths are and invest in building a competing platform where trad books are sold exclusively? Surely Patterson could fill his own stores with his titles alone. Why didn’t they buy Borders? Why don’t they make a bid on Barnes & Noble? Why doesn’t Hachette sell Hachette only titles right from their own website and forego Amazon altogether?

    My guess is because they’re making more money now than ever and the more they make, the more they want to keep. The squawking about Amazon is just propaganda to keep their authors worried about something other than low advances and lower royalty rates.

    Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain, folks.

    • Better yet, why don’t they – and the Big 5 – put their money where their mouths are and invest in building a competing platform where trad books are sold exclusively?
      I thought they did, by creating Bookish. Unfortunately for them, that didn’t turn out so well.

      • Ebooks for Bookish link back to Amazon, Kobo, B&N, etc…

        That’s not a competing platform. That’s a co-conspirator.

        • Really? I never checked, but… That’s just so stupid. Why pour so much cash into something and that link back to other retailers? It would be better if they shared that money with their authors.

  10. Maybe I’m the only one who thinks that the Big 5 will never, ever be able to create a competing platform (including ereader) for one, big reason: they’re all in competition with one another.

    Pretend that you could get the heads of any of them alone, give them enough alcohol to make them honest, and ask them, “Which would you prefer: winning a negotiation with Amazon, or grinding the other 4 publishers into dust?”

    I know what their answer would be.

    Colluding on prices is one thing, but why would we expect them to be able to work together well enough to create real competition for Amazon?

    • Obviously, “The Seventy Maxims of Maximally Effective Mercenaries” never made it out of the slush pile at Tradpub.

      “29. The enemy of my enemy is my enemy’s enemy, no more, no less.”


      (Incidentally, I have a large poster featuring Schlock, Tagon, and Kevin looking very upset and captioned with #35 in my office.

      “35. That which does not kill me… has made a tactical error.”)

      • Thank you. That was a fun time waster 🙂 I’m picturing Adam Baldwin (the one from Firefly) saying #35.

        • Actually, I see Jayne as more of a Number Six man. Or maybe #27. He did, after all, give us the immortal line: “I’ll kill a man in a fair fight. Or if I think he’s gonna start a fair fight.”

  11. The comments at the Guardian made my head hurt. Kudos to Barry for responding in a professional manner, especially when one person suggested he did not know what a straw-man argument was.

    It seems like so many of the people over there dislike Amazon for reasons completely unrelated to the current Amazon/Hachette dispute. It is because of those reasons that they will take the opposite side of any Amazon dispute regardless of the facts of the matter.

    It’s really hard to take them seriously.

    • Fortunately, people who comment on the Guardian – or at least those who comment on pieces about eBooks and Amazon – seem to be a tiny, deranged minority. You see the same names cropping up there again and again. As a ‘hybrid’ author working with a small publisher as well as self publishing I’m occasionally asked to speak to groups of people who just love to read. Apart from the fact that it is pretty much always a pleasure, it has often struck me how little they know or care about the nuts and bolts of publishing, just as long as they can find enjoyable books (and increasingly that means eBooks on a Kindle, even for much older people) easily and at a price they can afford. Another thing I’m noticing is how people who would routinely buy books second or third hand in ‘charity shops’ or pass a single paperback around several friends, (lots of avid readers don’t have too much disposable income) are now happy to pay for new eBooks, again as long as the price isn’t too high. How can this be bad for authors? And shouldn’t they be praising Amazon for facilitating this?

  12. Terrence OBrien

    Destroy literature? When one supplier in a supply chain drops out, another steps up to take his place.

    • The problem is there isn’t that much demand for the literature in the first place and that’s why trad pub is scared. So are literary authors. They value it but other people don’t.

  13. I meant to say earlier that this is a good article and I think Barry goes out of his way to be fair and polite despite the general dismissiveness by the audience.

  14. Barry always does so well when he lays out the logic. There are so many contradictions to seize, though, it’s hard not to make a great point.

  15. One thing that bugs me about these debates is that, as far as I’m concerned, the likes of Patterson, Turow etc have become writing “machines” with offices, assistants, co-writers and so on, becoming so far removed from the intimate, creative process that is writing that they’re no longer representative of any part of this argument. They don’t represent writers or even books anymore. Just a vast process which they feed words and create airport bookshop fodder.
    Maybe I should have another coffee? It’s early here in West Oz.

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