Free markets or authors? Book sellers or publishing companies? If you support one player, can you not support another? That seems to be the convoluted case as it is being played out by Amazon.com and the publishing company The Hachette Book Group, and it leaves authors and readers (like me in both cases) in a quandary of a sort. Last weekend, I downloaded and read a Hachette book from Amazon.com. Did I do something wrong – and if I did, who exactly did I hurt?
Here are the facts of the case in a nutshell.
Hachette publishes books, and sells them on Amazon.com, as well as in other venues. They want to set the prices of their books. Amazon is the world’s biggest bookseller, and they want to set the prices, and in most cases they want to set them lower than the publishers would like. Hachette and Amazon got into a stand-off over the prices of Hachette’s digital books, and as a result Amazon has decided to sell some Hachette books at full price only. That’s a real turn-off for readers used to routine discounts on Amazon. As well, Amazon has removed the pre-order buttons for other Hachette books, and has removed some titles from search. It is tragedy of sorts for the authors who are getting caught in the cross-fire.
Full disclosure: I am a huge buyer of Amazon products (mostly ebooks for Kindle these days) and I am also a seller on Amazon. In fact, the physical copy of my latest book Economorphics is available in the U.S. exclusively on Amazon.com, which suits me fine. As well, I think it is a good thing when book prices fall. If prices are lower, people read more. And honestly, when we are talking about selling ebooks, the marginal costs are low (so low to be almost non-existent really) so it makes sense for Amazon to want to offer nice, deep discounts to get people to buy.
So how is that that Amazon is being called the bad guy (author Scott Turow went with ‘the Darth Vader of the Literary World’) in all of this? Well, to be fair they are now approaching monopoly-power status in the selling of ebooks, which makes some people uneasy. Fair enough. But is there anything Luke Skywalker-like about a publishing company? Hachette was one of three that in 2012 was accused by the U.S. Department of Justice of price fixing. Price collusion is monopoly-like behavior as well.
What I see is an industry – book publishing – in the midst of its own economorphic transformation. Trends ranging from technology through to the rise in resource prices (which is only going to get worse) are challenging its traditional structure. Competition, whether from Amazon or indie presses or blogs, is everywhere and the old model just does not work. Which means that this particular tussle is likely to only be the first of very many between those who have traditionally published books and those who are eschewing tradition.
The good guys in all this, in my own, very-biased view, are the authors. They write books and they want to sell them, because that’s how they make a living. But as an author myself, I think we all have to own the fact that the industry is changing and we cannot legislate against it.
The book I read, by the way, is The Pink Suit by Nicole Mary Kelby and it is a great, fictionalized telling of the story of the seamstress who labored over the outfit that Jackie Kennedy wore in Dallas on the day her husband was assassinated. I found the book to be a compelling economic history, the story of a time and place (New York in 1963) that no longer exists.
Kate, the heroine of The Pink Suit, worked for a (real) design house that, for a fee paid to the designer, copied Chanel suits stitch by stitch so that the First Lady could ‘wear American’ while at the same time enjoying French style. It was an industry model that worked for a while, but to my knowledge no longer exists. It had its time, and then the world moved on, no nostalgia required. Indeed, the characters in Ms, Kelby’s book routinely wear hats. Perhaps we should have enacted a law saying that people had to continue to do that, so as to save the now-diminished millinery industry?
Like millinery and couture were forced to do, the traditional publishing industry is changing. Vilifying those working with the changes will do little to stop them from occurring.