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10

Aug 2014

An Example of the Double Standard

Posted by / in Current Affairs / 23 comments

Bosch_BoxArt_01In today’s New York Times, authors Douglas Preston and many big-name authors, took out a full-page ad supporting Hachette in their dispute with Amazon. As I mentioned in a blog post yesterday, one phrase really bugged me:

“As writers–most of us not published by Hachette–we feel strongly that no bookseller should block the sale of books or otherwise prevent or discourage customers from ordering or receiving the books they want.”

But Doug, his co-signers, and the Author’s Guild haven’t shown that same outrage, or any concern at all, about booksellers boycotting books from Amazon Publishing, a practice that has been going on openly for years.

That’s a double-standard.

I believe that the Authors Guild, and guys like Doug and his co-signers, shouldn’t support one retailer’s right to carry whatever title they want…for whatever reasons they want…and not Amazon’s right to do the same thing. That was my point in yesterday’s post. Doug’s argument was disingenuous. This dispute is not about what’s best for either authors or readers.

My post sparked a lively and friendly debate on my Facebook page, where several people pointed out that booksellers aren’t going to stock books published by Amazon, a company they see as their competitor. Some people also pointed out that many booksellers feel betrayed by authors who signed with Amazon Publishing. Furthermore, some booksellers felt that authors who signed with Amazon Publishing showed a fundamental lack of concern for the future of the booksellers who’ve supported them for years.

I don’t think that’s a fair or accurate characterization. Many of the authors now published by Amazon Publishing were either dropped by their publishers (and thus radioactive as far as other publishers are concerned) or were offered terrible contracts that ultimately pay below minimum wage. Amazon Publishing has revived the careers of hundreds of mid-list authors who otherwise would be finished in publishing…or forced to take crap contracts that they can’t live on just to remain in print. I believe it’s wrong for any bookseller to see it as a betrayal if an author chooses to take an Amazon Publishing contract in order to continue supporting his family and to stay in print. By the same token, I can understand, emotionally and on principle, why a bookseller wouldn’t want to carry Amazon Publishing titles. I don’t resent any bookseller for making that choice.

And yet…there’s a double-standard among booksellers, too, about what constitutes “betrayal.”

Michael Connelly’s TV show BOSCH, based on his Harry Bosch books that booksellers have lovingly handsold for years, is exclusive to Amazon. You have to be a member of Amazon Prime, or rent episodes from Amazon, to watch it.

I haven’t heard any booksellers accuse him of “betrayal” or insensitivity to booksellers for taking his show to Amazon. In his case, making that choice wasn’t about paying his mortgage or saving his career. And I bet booksellers will continue to sell his Bosch books….and when tie-in editions of the Bosch books come out with actor Titus Welliver on the covers, bookstores will sell those, too, even though they will be promoting BOSCH, and drawing new viewers to an Amazon-exclusive TV show.

But those same booksellers won’t carry Amazon Publishing books by critically-acclaimed, award-winning mystery authors like Harry Hunsicker or Alan Russell or G.M. Ford.

The difference?

Most Amazon Publishing authors are mid list. Michael is a huge, bestselling author, so they’d be taking a financial hit by not stocking his books…and would piss off their customers. Michael is also one of the nicest guys on the planet, who has supported indie booksellers for decades with in-store signings and drop-shipped signed books. I can’t think of anyone who doesn’t like and admire Michael. I certainly do. There’s enormous, well-deserved affection and admiration for Michael, so booksellers wouldn’t think of hurting his feelings by not stocking his books as a stand against Amazon. If anything, they have expressed nothing but happiness that Bosch is finally coming to the screen…though it’s exclusively through Amazon.

Contractors_FrontCover_FINALOn the other hand, there’s Harry Hunsicker. He’s an award-winning, critically acclaimed novelist that booksellers enthusiastically hand sold.. and who, in return, has supported booksellers for years, both as an author and also as executive director of the Mystery Writers of America. And he’s also one of the nicest people you will ever meet. But most bookstores won’t carry him anymore, because he’s published by Amazon. The difference is, it’s easy to boycott Harry. Or Alan Russell. Or G.M. Ford. They are midlist. It’s not so easy to boycott Mike. He’s a superstar.

But if booksellers were to boycott Michael’s books because the BOSCH show is exclusive to Amazon, you can bet there would be widespread outrage from the Authors Guild, and all of the authors who signed that New York Times open letter today. But when booksellers boycott Amazon Publishing’s books, and hurt hundreds of authors, that’s okay as far as Doug Preston, his co-signers, and the Authors Guild are concerned.

That’s a double-standard.

I am not saying Amazon is right in the Hachette dispute, or that booksellers shouldn’t be able to choose what books to stock or how to price them. But I am saying that Doug’s stance, and Author United’s, and the Authors Guild’s, is hypocritical and disingenuous. And that booksellers who accuse authors of “betrayal” for signing with Amazon Publishing are wrong, too. It’s a complex issue, one that neither side can boil down to a simple argument…or simple villains.

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23 comments
  • Terrill Lankford

    August 10, 2014, am31 11:51 AM
    01

    Wow, Lee Goldberg, considering your background in both TV and books, I’m really shocked that you went THERE. I thought you might have a better understanding about how this works. First off, Michael Connelly’s BOOKS aren’t published by Amazon. Once again, this is an apples and oranges debate. As a matter of fact, they are published by Little, Brown, which is of course owned by Hachette, the other side of this Amazon battle. Second off, Mike sold the rights to his books to a company called Fabrik. They then made the deal to produce the show WITH Amazon. (Amazon doesn’t own the show, just certain territories. Fabrik owns the rest.) Mike was not the guy deciding where the show would be sold, although he certainly was in on the decision. The deal went down because Amazon was offering the most creative freedom out there (mainly because they are new at this). And trust me, the possible backlash from bookstores was definitely a painful thing for everyone to consider. But hopefully books and TV can still be considered two different creatures in our new media culture, even if they are linked by an author. Certainly CBS’s business practices aren’t a consideration when buying one of Thomas Harris’ books just because HANNIBAL is run there. (If it’s CBS – I don’t remember.) I know this situation is more of an extreme because it’s Amazon, but there is still a separation between TV seller and book seller here. Selling Mike’s books in a legitimate bookstore may slightly promote the BOSCH TV show, but it doesn’t put money directly in the pockets of Amazon, it puts money in the pockets of Hachette. On the other hand, the BOSCH TV show definitely promotes the Bosch books in a way that has never been done before. Hopefully that will also help the sales in the brick and mortar stores, especially when he does signings. Mike is in a very awkward spot here, but he does business with Hachette, with Amazon (as we ALL do – just about every author living and dead) and has a fierce loyalty to the bookstores that help put him on the map. It’s unfortunate that he’s been put in this position by the various moves made by others (and yes, himself to some degree), but I’m really surprised you played that card. It’s really way more complicated than you present.

    You keep talking about how Doug’s argument is disingenuous. It’s the fight they want to fight. You have a completely different fight you want to fight. And for some weird reason you think others should fight it for you. I think you and many of the writers who are part of AU have very different opinions about what’s best for authors and readers. Amazon authors should fight their own battles and not expect everyone else to do it for them.

    And of course, for anyone out there who doesn’t know, I should be upfront with the statement that I work with Michael Connelly and have for almost 20 years. More importantly we are good friends. I don’t work directly for Amazon or Hachette, but my work benefits both their companies. (Can I say I’m not a huge fan of either of them and not get fired? Probably not.)

    • Lee Goldberg

      August 10, 2014, pm31 12:03 PM
      02

      Of course BOSCH is a more complicated issue than it appears to be, Lee. So is the issue of bookstores boycotting Amazon Publishing titles. Judging by your response, perhaps now you are seeing that in a way you didn’t before…and that’s exactly why I used BOSCH as an example.

      All the arguments you make for Michael’s decision, and the reasons why booksellers shouldnt be upset about it, are not that different from the arguments an Amazon Publishing author might make. You say, for instance,

      “The deal went down because Amazon was offering the most creative freedom out there (mainly because they are new at this). ”

      Well, most Amazon Publishing authors have signed up because they were dropped by their publishers, were now toxic, and had no where else to go… or because the financial and creative terms offered by Amazon Publishing were much better than what they were being offering by “traditional publishers.” Those authors haven’t betrayed booksellers any more than Michael has.

      You write: “Selling Mike’s books in a legitimate bookstore may slightly promote the BOSCH TV show, but it doesn’t put money directly in the pockets of Amazon, it puts money in the pockets of Hachette. On the other hand, the BOSCH TV show definitely promotes the Bosch books in a way that has never been done before. Hopefully that will also help the sales in the brick and mortar stores, especially when he does signings.”

      I hope so, too. But let’s be honest here, my friend. The better Mike’s books do, the larger the potential audience is for BOSCH, the Amazon-exclusive show. Selling Bosch books puts money in booksellers’ pockets..as well as Hachette’s…as well as Michael’s…and indirectly, but certainly, in Amazon’s, too. Especially if booksellers sell the tie-in edition with Titus Welliver’s picture on the cover… or sell books that will inevitably be stamped with a sticker like: “Watch the BOSCH series on Amazon.” Each book becomes an advertisement for the show and Amazon Prime. That is the whole reason for tie-in editions… cross promotion. A tower in a bookstore of books associated with a movie or TV show becomes a billboard in the store for the movie or TV show. You know that as well as I do. I am NOT saying there is anything wrong with that. I hope BOSCH is a huge success, as a fan of the books and as a friend and admirer of Michael’s. But don’t tell me that’s any different than a bookstore stocking Amazon Publishing books. Or that his creative and financial reasons for taking the deal are any more or less “bookstore-friendly” or valid than an author’s for taking an Amazon Publishing contract. If booksellers sell Amazon Publishing titles, they are also also putting money in their own pocket, money in the author’s pocket…and money in Amazon’s pocket. In both cases, booksellers are giving money to Amazon… only with Michael’s books, it’s easier to pretend that they aren’t.

  • Michael Jacobs

    August 10, 2014, pm31 12:49 PM
    03

    The 900 pound elephant in the room that we’re not talking about is that, 1.Amazon is the world’s largest bookseller and 2. in the not too distant future, the entire publishing industry will ultimately be electronic. Welcome to the 21st Century. Even school districts are going to e-readers instead of paper books because they are less expensive and they have the advantage of being able to update information. Students like that idea because its easier to carry home a Kindle or tablet than a backpack with 30 pounds of books in it.
    Douglas Preston is full of crap. He’s only interested in his bottom line. Well, these times, they are a changing. The same thing must have happened back at the turn of the 20th Century when buggy whip manufacturers, blacksmiths and stable owners lost their income due to the advent of the automobile. Maybe authors will make less per unit sold with the new technology, but maybe they will ultimately make more through volume. I may be a little biased in this whole argument because I love my Kindle. Whether the book I’m reading is 200 pages or 1000 pages, it still only weighs 6 ounces. Welcome to the future, for it is now.

  • john zemler

    August 10, 2014, pm31 1:01 PM
    04

    Hello,
    I agree with you on the double standard. Mr. Preston seems to be willfully ignorant of this.
    That said, I don’t think Amazon is actually delisting or refusing to actually sell books published by Hachette, (as stated or implied by Mr. Preston in various venues), while many bookstores refuse to sell anything published by Amazon.
    Oddly enough, if a bookstore sold books published through Amazon’s CreateSpace, would they not actually make some money on the sales and show a level of customer service that would bring repeat business from that customer?
    This is topic is relatively new to me and I may be mistaken about a bookstore creating additional revenue from selling an Amazon published book. I’d appreciate clarification.
    Thank you for your insightful blog.

  • Woelf Dietrich

    August 10, 2014, pm31 2:29 PM
    05

    Thanks, Lee. I’ve shared this on Facebook and Google+ and on Twitter. This hypocrisy is now getting too loud. The worst of it, I think, apart from the screaming and shouting and not wanting to stock anything Amazon tainted, is that it’s based on emotion and not business principles. Booksellers are giving more power to Amazon by treating Amazon writers like lepers. I find it ironic.

  • Robert Gregory Browne

    August 10, 2014, pm31 2:42 PM
    06

    I’ve never understood why publishers are allowed to set a selling price of their goods. Don’t most manufacturers have a “suggested” retail price and leave it up to the retailer to decide what to charge and how to discount?

    Seems odd to me that publishers get a pass on this.

    • Stephen St. Onge

      September 1, 2014, pm30 1:13 PM
      07

      Minimum prices used to be common. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fair_trade_law. They were always sold as important measures to protect the consumer, or small businesses, and always acted to protect large businesses from competition.

      At the base of all this is that Hachette and the other big publishers don’t want eBooks to exist. Since they can’t prevent them from existing, they want to cripple the eBook market to the extent possible.

  • Karen Dolyniuk

    August 10, 2014, pm31 2:46 PM
    08

    I admit that I don’t know all the details of this dispute but it was interesting to read about G.M. Ford whose books I had always purchased. He disappeared for a while but I was pleased to find his books again on my Kindle. As a long time reader, it was tough for me to switch to a kindle four years ago but I was running out of space and had to do something. I still buy all the same books I did before, I’m fact I probably buy more books now in electronic format than I did in hard cover form. I want to support all authors but when hardcovers were well over $30 each in Canada, reading was becoming a very expensive pleasure.

  • zachary klein

    August 10, 2014, pm31 2:58 PM
    09

    Anyone who knows me or have read my blog knows that i am *not* a defender of corporate capitalism. But this ongoing attack against Amazon rings hollow. Having worked for legacy publishers (a New York Times Notable for my first book) I learned a couple of things. Legacy’s won’t deal with authors without agents unless they are big-time bread winners unless they’re superstars (who started with agents). There goes another piece of the chump change royalties those houses actually pay. Worse, they aren’t “independent” houses needing to block the big corporate giant because most of them are simply subsidiaries of different corporate giants. Look at the names on the letter. See any new writers (unless they found an agent who sold them). Truth is, writers get better deals from Amazon than *any* legacy house and the attempt to keep prices lower in this economy is a good thing–not some terrible attack on artists. And I’m not just talking about self-published authors or even writers that old houses describe as mid-list (a term that makes me swallow my bile). Even e-book publishing.houses like Brash Books or Polis Books (for whom I know write) are more considerate of all their writers than legacies. (When was the last time a non superstar was ever consulted on their book’s cover? What I believe this attack is really about has to do with corporate greed. MORE MONEY for a house’s books. And while I do have trouble with Amazon regarding corporate power, there are a hell-of-lot of talented writers who’d never have an opportunity to be noticed by houses other than Amazon. My guess is, most of the writers who signed that letter spent more time looking at their fat wallets than considering new or unheard of authors.

  • zachary klein

    August 10, 2014, pm31 2:59 PM
    10

    Anyone who knows me or have read my blog knows that i am *not* a defender of corporate capitalism. But this ongoing attack against Amazon rings hollow. Having worked for legacy publishers (a New York Times Notable for my first book) I learned a couple of things. Legacy’s won’t deal with authors without agents unless they are big-time bread winners unless they’re superstars (who started with agents). There goes another piece of the chump change royalties those houses actually pay. Worse, they aren’t “independent” houses needing to block the big corporate giant because most of them are simply subsidiaries of different corporate giants. Look at the names on the letter. See any new writers (unless they found an agent who sold them). Truth is, writers get better deals from Amazon than *any* legacy house and the attempt to keep prices lower in this economy is a good thing–not some terrible attack on artists. And I’m not just talking about self-published authors or even writers that old houses describe as mid-list (a term that makes me swallow my bile). Even e-book publishing.houses like Brash Books or Polis Books (for whom I know write) are more considerate of all their writers than legacies. (When was the last time a non superstar was ever consulted on their book’s cover? What I believe this attack is really about has to do with corporate greed. MORE MONEY for a house’s books. And while I do have trouble with Amazon regarding corporate power, there are a hell-of-lot of talented writers who’d never have an opportunity to be noticed by houses other than Amazon. My guess is, most of the writers who signed that letter spent more time looking at their fat wallets than considering new or unheard of authors.

  • Edward Champion

    August 10, 2014, pm31 5:28 PM
    11

    A double standard typically applies when there are two comparable groups or entities facing the same situation. It is hardly hypocrisy to hold Amazon to a different standard, one that involves calling out its pernicious effect upon the publishing clime, when it clearly operates as both bookseller and book publisher, a vertical integration model no different from Carnegie Steel controlling the steel mills, the mines, and the terms it once dictated with Bezos-like glee to suppliers. Can an indie bookseller rate? I suppose you could make a case for the on-demand nature of the Espresso Book Machine, the little-used printer in some upscale bookstores, but it is abundantly clear that an independent bookseller is predominantly a bookseller, sometimes offering space for author events to help move units (and often taking a significant hit because of promises to publishers), but ultimately concerned with selling books while fighting off diabolical schemes such as Amazon Fire’s scanning feature. I will grant you that it is certainly true that Amazon stepped in with an opportunity for midlist writers, a perfectly calculated “divide and conquer” strategy designed to pit writers against each other, but it is abundantly clear that, the very minute there is no profitability, Amazon will sell them out more cruelly than the publishers who dumped them did. And nice guys like Harry Hunsicker, among other current author/boosters, could change their tune. (I’m wondering how non-disparagement clauses compare between Big Five contracts and Amazon author contracts.) And make no mistake: Amazon’s condescending dispatches to customers about the e-book being a mass market paperback suggests that there has been a shortfall in the e-trade. But Amazon also has considerable muscle in the market and to have a discussion about alleged “double standards” — especially when words like “betrayal” are bandied about recklessly and without a sufficient comparative argument — while simultaneously denying the existence of Amazon’s nearly indomitable presence and its appurtenant machinations is akin to popping another quarter in the Bezos Laugh Machine.

    • Stephen St. Onge

      September 1, 2014, pm30 1:19 PM
      12

      It’s not exactly new for a book retailer to also be a publisher. Brentano used to publish books as well as sell them, e.g.

  • Raymond Benson

    August 10, 2014, pm31 5:38 PM
    13

    So why doesn’t Amazon just let Hachette charge whatever prices they want for their e-books? Amazon can continue to charge lower prices on all the OTHER books. LET Hachette charge $14.99 or $19.99 for an e-book. What’s the big deal? Although, in the long run, that hurts Hachette authors because I think less copies will be sold–but that’s Hachette’s prerogative. But if that’s what Hachette wants, then let ’em. Why has this become such a war? Please correct me if I’m wrong, but what’s the skin off Amazon if Hachette e-books are $14.99? That doesn’t necessarily mean all the other NY publishers will start charging those prices, does it? The whole thing seems to be much ado about a lot of nothing except one NY publisher wanting to charge more for an e-book than anyone else. So what? If that’s their pricing, then Amazon should just list those prices and see what happens. They may be proven right when all is said and done.

    • Lee Goldberg

      August 10, 2014, pm31 6:01 PM
      14

      That’s exactly what this analyst, Jake Kerr, says will … and should… happen:

      https://medium.com/@jakedfw/making-sense-of-amazon-hachette-6ef55a961cbe

      The one thing that Amazon can do that will substantively hurt Hachette is to stop discounting their books. The trouble with this is that, while it is a win for Amazon (more profits per sale) and a loss for Hachette (lower sales) it goes against Amazon’s goal of maintaining their market share by keeping ebook business a low enough profit business to keep the other major players minimally engaged.

      And this is where I think we are going to see this negotiation end: The terms don’t change, but Amazon severely cuts back its discounting. This will annoy consumers who will now have to pay more for books. This will hurt Hachette and authors in that it will see lower sales volume due to the higher prices.

    • Matt Iden

      August 10, 2014, pm31 8:24 PM
      15

      Raymond – I’m no analyst or publishing insider, but my guess from reading way too many blogs and columns about the dispute is that the crux of the matter isn’t price but market share.

      If Amazon starts letting The Big Five set their own prices with the idea of “teaching them a lesson,” (i.e., their revenue plummets because they insist on$14.99 for an ebook and volume tanks), then yeah, Hachette and friends get a black eye…but then consumers start asking themselves “why should I buy at Amazon? Their prices aren’t any better than [online store X]).”

      And, of course the next four publishers are lining up for their DOJ-mandated turn to negotiate (I believe Simon and Schuster is already at the table). If Amazon throws their hands in the air and let’s the chips fall where they may for all the Big Five, they’ll lose the market advantage they’ve gained by steep discounting and good customer service…and readers will be paying $14.99 for ebooks everywhere.

      • Matt Iden

        August 10, 2014, pm31 8:33 PM
        16

        I just realized I repeated what you said, Lee, in a different way. Sorry!

    • Peter Winkler

      August 30, 2014, pm31 12:49 PM
      17

      I agree. Evidently, Amazon and Hachette are fighting over the division of ebook royalties. Amazon wants to keep more than Hachette currently gives them, and vice versa.

  • Laurence O’Bryan

    August 10, 2014, pm31 9:07 PM
    18

    Lee,

    You are right about double standards, but it’s not only in the truth about Amazon authors being excluded from bookstores.

    Self published authors also don’t get pre-order buttons, which is what a lot of Doug Preston’s cabal are moaning about being deprived of on Amazon, because of the dispute.

    You don’t see them complaining about that or defending the rights of self published writers. Doug Preston and his cronies are part of a long established system where top selling authors are invested in almost exclusively by the big publishers, because they reached a certain level of sales. This “blockbuster” system is to the detriment of good writing in that it excludes minority voices. Amazon is a good thing for minorities, mid list authors and readers. Anyone defending Hachette is defending an elitist, over charging, backward looking .system, which is under attack.

    If my millions a year income from that system was under attack, I too might jump to its defense, so I don’t blame them, and their pals, but let’s at least be honest about the situation, something I see as lacking in the arguments against Amazon.

  • David

    August 12, 2014, am31 6:44 AM
    19

    Will be interesting to see what happens with Amazon over the next 6 months to a year. I heard on a news report the other day that Amazon’s revenue for first quarter or half year was 19billion(pretty sure it was quarter) and they managed to lose over a hundred million on that. Seems this is a recurring trend with them.

    Something has to give or someone high up has to go on those figures. Amazon has had enough time to show a return other than capital growth through share price increase. After the GFC people seem to want more than just growth in their share prices (finally!) they want an ongoing return(back to basics).

    This may not be creative (other than the accounting) but I am certain it will affect all the creatives down the food chain eventually, in some form or other. Just another angle to this complicated situation.

  • Ed Gorman

    August 12, 2014, am31 8:57 AM
    20

    Very well said, Lee. Hachette’s sanctimony and duplicity in this matter has always bothered me especially since Amazon has filled their coffers so well in the past.

  • Kevin Burton Smith

    August 13, 2014, am31 10:17 AM
    21

    Not only did Preston fail to address the problem of getting some POD books by some Amazon authors onto some bookstore shelves in his petition, but he said nothing about the problems in the Middle East or the starving children in Africa.

    What a duplicitous, hypocritical bastard.

    • Lee Goldberg

      August 13, 2014, am31 11:38 AM
      22

      One correction, Kevin. The Amazon Publishing titles are NOT print-on-demand.

      Lee

  • Lee Goldberg

    August 13, 2014, am31 11:40 AM
    23

    Oh, and he is a duplicitous, hypocritical bastard for not taking sides in the Gaza conflict. 🙂

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