Me and Salinger and Patterson an’ Them

by wjw on May 9, 2014

So . . . what do I have in common with J.D. Salinger and James Patterson and Malcolm Gladwell and Stephen Colbert? (Besides a loyal following who view me as a god, I mean?)

We— and a whole lot of other folks— are now caught in the middle in yet another battle between Amazon and a publisher, in this case Hachette/Little, Brown, the science fiction imprint of which is Orbit.

We Orbit writers have for the last couple weeks been discussing among ourselves the fact that our novels, while still in print, are listed by Amazon as “usually ships within 2-3 weeks.”  (Here’s a link to This Is Not a Game so you can view the phenomenon for yourself.)  Since the books are all in print and available, this means that Amazon was deliberately not restocking when inventory ran low.  We speculated whether Amazon was experimenting by keeping physical books out of circulation in order to drive more readers to ebooks and the Kindle— though I thought that seemed unlikely given the whole “customer is king” philosophy of Amazon.

The most likely reason, we figured, was that there was some kind of conflict going on between Amazon and Hachette.  The customer may be king at Amazon, I thought, but Greenbacks are God.

Today that speculation was proved right.  Hachette announced that their contract with Amazon was expiring, and that they are in negotiation.  Amazon’s stock lost a quarter of its value this year as a result of stockholders getting impatient about finally acquiring a share of the company’s profits, and Amazon is eager to squeeze every penny out of publishers.  Publishers, already threatened by an out-of-date mid-20th century business model they can’t seem to escape, need to keep those pennies.

My guess is that Amazon doesn’t really care if they drive publishers out of business.  Then they can pick up their assets at a bargain price.

My guess is that neither Hachette nor Amazon is sparing a lot of compassion at this moment for writers.  We’re just the tennis ball that gets slammed back and forth as they play their billion-dollar game.

So what do you do if you want a paperback of This is Not a Game?  I’d suggest getting yourself an account at Barnes & Noble.  Or go to your local brick-and-mortar store and special-order a copy.

My guess is that you’ll get it in considerably less than 2-3 weeks.

And, if you’ve already got a copy of TINAG, you might take pity on other Orbit writers, like NK Jemisin, James S.A. Corey, and Kim Stanley Robinson, and maybe get a copy of one or two of their works as well.

Now here’s a thought: whenever Amazon gets in negotiations with someone, they go straight to the Nuclear Option.  When they were in negotiations with MacMillan a few years ago, they removed the “buy button” from MacMillan’s pages.  When they were in negotiations with the Independent Publishers’ Group, all 4000 of IPGs books vanished from the Amazon catalog.

Now I ask you: how long will the publishers put up with this?  Because the truth is, they don’t have to.

In the days of my youth, paperback books had little order slips in the back, with prices and instructions and brief descriptions of the books available.  If you wanted some of those books, you could clip that last page, fill in your name, tape your quarters to a card, and order direct from the publisher.

Why don’t publishers do that sort of thing now?  Why don’t publishers get their own electronic marketplace?

And the answer is: “Well, in order to have such a thing, we’d have to have warehouses, and printing presses, and a huge Internet presence.”

Which leads me to say: “Well, you already have the printing presses, and you’ve got the warehouses, which come fully equipped with the charmingly-named ‘warehouse apes’ to move the stock about, and you’ve already got a web presence, which however pathetic is still on the web.”

And then they say, “Well, it’s not the sort of thing we do.”

To which I say, “Do you realize how lame and stupid that response makes you sound?”

If I were one of the Big Five, I’d call up the other four and agree to put money down on creating a direct competitor to Amazon, shipping both books and ebooks to whoever wants them.  I’d hire away someone from Amazon to run it (or from B&N, or Wal-mart, or someone who’s really good at running a web business).

Now it might be claimed that this is an attempt to create a monopoly, which it isn’t if the publishers continue to ship to Amazon, B&N, Baker & Taylor, and whoever else wants their product.

Trouble will appear, however, when it comes to publishers agreeing to discount their product in the same way that Amazon and other retailers do.  Publisher don’t quite understand that the web runs on discounts.  They’re a MSRP sort of business.  Just remember how long it took them to understand that ebooks should be priced differently from hardbacks— and a number of them still haven’t got that message.  (When I see that the ebook I want is priced higher than the mass-market paperback, you know what that makes me do— ?  Go to the library!)

But in the meantime— until Amazon’s competitors and suppliers develop some smarts— we Orbit authors are stuck within the blast zone of the Nuclear Option.

John Appel May 10, 2014 at 12:14 am

And this is why I stopped buying things from Amazon in large part, and still won’t buy books from them. I’ve been all Barnes & Noble for several years, at least for the lions’ share of my books.

But the point about the competitors having their heads up their collective fourth points of contact? Dead on. There are times I’ll use Amazon to search for a book I want if I can’t recall the correct title or spelling of the author’s name, because their search facility is at least an order of magnitude better than B&N, to use one small example. Or the fact that when looking at my order history at B&N, all I see is a list of order numbers, dates and dollar amounts, with no indicator of just what it was I bought. These people just can’t wrap their heads around how to efficiently and effectively service customers.

TRX May 10, 2014 at 1:51 am

As I’ve said before, Amazon isn’t what is killing off the publishers and their distribution system. Amazon is what is filling the void after the publishers commit corporate suicide.

“Hey, we could hire some guys to put up a web store, sell our books directly, and keep a big chunk of the money we’re losing to Amazon’s discounts.”

“That’s not our core business. We’re publishers, not data processors.”

“Yes, but the money…”

“Besides, that would put us in direct competition with our downstream distributors, and I’m pretty sure our contracts disallow that.”

“Well, we could just farm it all out to a subsidiary, it’d be no different than using Amazon.”

“What good would that do? How would Kindle users find it?”

“There are other platforms than Kindle, you know.”

“What? Really? But that’s not our core business…”

wjw May 10, 2014 at 2:36 am

And for that matter I sell Kindle ebooks on platforms other than Amazon, so even that shouldn’t be a problem.

And of course the publishers will insist on DRM, and then leave their whole website open to intrusion . . .

TCWriter May 10, 2014 at 4:08 am

Amazon used to negotiate for “marketing” dollars from the publishers (a not altogether outrageous idea), but in recent years they’ve even give up the pretense of “marketing” costs — it’s simply a shakedown.

I haven’t bought from Amazon in some time, and I’m always a little amazed at writers who talk about the company like its corporate offices were located on the other side of the pearly gates.

They’re a monopoly, and they’ll squeeze writers just as soon as they’re done putting the boots to publishers — unless there are alternatives (like you said).

wjw May 10, 2014 at 5:14 am

Amazon is a bullying, vicious company with a plan to rule the world. Hey, it’s an Internet company— they’re =all= like that.

They have the same business plan as Barnes & Noble and Borders, they’re just smarter and faster.

On the other hand, they created the world market for ebooks, and they send me money every 30 days. Which is more than any other publisher did for me.

It’s sort of like being decorated by Stalin. If not for the honor of the thing . . .

Foxessa May 11, 2014 at 5:48 pm

My question is how long we writers will put up with this?

If we stop providing amazilla content it shall crash.

Even vaunted self-published writers are entirely dependent on amazilla and can be — and even are, even now — removed, hidden, whatever, at an amazilla whimsical push of a button.

They have studied the tactics of Cornelius Vanderbilt with great care. Come into my parlor, said the spider to the fly.

Stephen Ormsby May 12, 2014 at 4:18 am

As a publisher, we stock and ship our published books from our website, even though we are listed everywhere else. We saw this as a necessity in a tightening space.

Also, you don’t have to pay discounts if you order the book and ship it yourself!

Daniel May 12, 2014 at 11:02 am

I sort of understand the publishers’ reluctance to sell directly to the consumer. Most makers of products would rather not get into also having to run a retail operation, it’s a a giant operation on top of their existing business operations. Except for Tesla Motors, the average car manufacture doesn’t want to be in the business of directly running car dealerships on top of the business of manufacturing either.

wjw May 12, 2014 at 11:57 pm

It’s not like I want Amazon to disappear. They’re smart and innovative, if ruthless.

What I want is for their competition to get =smarter.= Which isn’t happening.

I don’ t think an authors’ boycott of Amazon would hurt anyone but the author. The publishers provide most of Amazon’s profitable e-content, and if the author has sold their electronic rights to the publisher, they won’t have anything to say about where it’s sold.

The only authors who deal directly with Amazon are indie, and they’re not going to sacrifice their biggest market. Amazon provides about 80% of the money I earn from ebooks, and choking off that source of income would hurt me considerably, and Amazon scarcely at all.

Daniel, I don’t think the automobile manufacturer/dealer analogy holds. That would hold if publisher started building actual brick-and-mortar bookstores. In what I’m suggesting, publishers would just create a big virtual market, and mostly use their own warehouse space to supply it.

TRX May 13, 2014 at 10:58 am

Frankly, I’m surprised the SFWA doesn’t have a store for their membership’s books. Both paper and digital, for that matter.

DensityDuck May 13, 2014 at 6:58 pm

There’s also the fact that the publisher/distributor arrangement has existed for so long that the publishers probably consider the distributors to be business partners, rather than simply service providers. Starting their own sales branch isn’t just changing business concepts; it’s screwing over a partner.

Bruce May 19, 2014 at 8:31 am

As Charlie Stross pointed out a while ago. Publishers chose to shoot themselves in the head by demandng exotic DRM on everything that permitted easy lock in of ebook customers by amazon. Now people have large immovable (without extra specialist work) book collections with amazon and aren’t moving.

It’s not very tempting to feel sorry for the publishers who in the name of hurting customers actually ended hurting themselves.


wjw May 21, 2014 at 5:31 am

It sure worked in my case. I was an early adopter of Kindle, and now I’ve got hundreds of DRM-loaded Kindle files in my Amazon file. I don’t get to read them unless I have a Kindle, or at least Kindle software on some other platform.

Hey, Amazon now takes 3-5 weeks to deliver my book! So much for a fast resolution of the problem.

Bruce May 24, 2014 at 9:09 am

It is fortunate that amazon drm can be removed fairly easily. I periodically update an offline deformed copy of my kindle library. It is far less convenient than the nice amazon page sharing etc, but at least the loss wouldn’t be catastrophic if I moved.


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