Wrapping Our Heads Around Amazon

11 July, 2014

If you are a writer, you would have to be living under a rock not to be aware of the David and Goliath battle between Amazon and Hachette.  There has been so much media coverage of this that I don’t need to add my analysis of the situation here, blow by blow. I do need to address the latest twist in this bizarre drama that is playing itself out in full public view.  There is no question in my mind that the “letter” fro4m Amazon to Hachette this past week suggesting that authors receive 100% of e-book revenues, thereby bypassing the publishers, is an extraordinarily manipulative ploy to win “customer” support and turn customers against publishers, once more deriding the roles that publishing professionals and companies play in financing, developing and publishing books.

I have spent more than three decades–my entire working life–in book publishing.  I have worked on both sides of the fence, both as an editor and publisher, and for the past 13 years, as an agent and entrepreneur.  I have helped to shepherd thousands of books through the process in one guise or another.  I am only too intimately aware of the extraordinary care, passion and expertise the best publishing professionals bring to their craft.  If you, as a writer, could sit in on the countless discussions that go on behind-the-scenes that help to shape a book and its message, you might be humbled by the hundreds of decisions/choices that go into birthing a book and bringing it out into the world.  And that doesn’t take into account the years that a writer may have put into writing a proposal and then a book, and the joint efforts of the author and agent to bring it to publishers in the best possible shape to entice the publisher to take it on in the first place.  This is just not an exact science and there is not always one right way to write and publish a book.

We all know advances are down, but we sometimes forget that advances are exactly that–a loan or investment to finance the writing of a book, without which many writers would not be able to write at all.  Those of us who have poured over subsequent profit and loss statements after the book has been published know all to well that many, many books do not make back this money for publishers, although enough do to keep the publishers who are healthy and strong and make wise decisions afloat.  This is a very tough, low-margin business.  If you want to get rich–do something else.  Go work for a hedge fund.

To suggest that publishers should not then share in the revenue produced by that book is an absurd business proposition.

On the other side, I am an agent who has sold books to Amazon, and a reader who owns–among other devices–a Kindle which I love dearly, and scores of books that I’ve bought from Amazon.  I am a customer, a very loyal one actually, who has been with Amazon literally from day one, and I love many things about the site and the service.  Let us remember that Amazon revolutionized bookselling.

There’s no simple way to resolve the conflicts in one’s own mind, as a reader and a publishing professional.  The takeaway here, I hope, is that the battles that are being fought today are complicated, fraught, and the issues are nuanced, not easily reduced to black and white.

This is not just about good guys and bad guys. We all know that there are times when publishers do a poor job and let writers and readers down.  And there are things that companies like Amazon do brilliantly.  I can only hope that there can be at some point a genuine dialogue.  Vendors need books.  Books need distribution. Customers need ease to make the right choices and get great service.  Let’s just keep talking, reading, thinking.  At some point, this too shall pass.

–Joelle Delbourgo