Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Hatchette v. Amazon: The Writing is on the Wall

I learned the meaning a new word this morning - fisking. A point-by-point criticism of someone else's blog post. That is what Joe Konrath does with Hatchette author, Charles Stross.

I fail to see why exactly Hatchette authors are so busy supporting a multinational mega-corporation that has only its best interests at heart. I know. Stockholm Syndrome. It's the same reason Patty Hearst was seen on camera in a bank supporting the very people who kidnapped, tortured, and turned her to the Dark Side. She identified with her captors because she saw the cessation of torture as benevolence on the part of her captors. She became a Manchurian candidate, brain washed to believe that black is white and day is night. Understandable that the mind would protect itself by creating and believing in a fantasy world that has nothing in common with reality, at least not the reality that most people live with.

I do see Hatchette's point. If they get Amazon to agree to their terms in negotiation, the consumer will be back with the old agency model fixing prices so the consumer will have no choice but to buy fewer books because they have to pay more for them. Isn't that what the Department of Justice declared was illegal back when Apple and the Big 5 (one of which was Hatchette) colluded to fix prices and keep them unusually high? It wasn't authors who won on that deal because they still saw less money than they should have since they were the motive force behind publishing and the reason for publishing's existence.

It seems that modern authors are less willing to go the route of Jane Austen, Anaïs Nin, Henry Miller, and thousands of others before and after them. Mark Twain went so far as to open his own publishing house to keep more of his earnings. It could be said that Mark Twain did that so he could spend more, and there is some truth to that, but ultimately it was because he wanted to write books on his own terms, terms he wasn't being offered by publishers. Publishers refused Henry Miller a change to get his words out because they felt his work was pornographic. Having read all of Miller's books, I'd have to say that the sex in the books, although somewhat distasteful, was germane to the story he told, which was essentially a memoir. Miller wrote what he knew.

Jane Austen self-published because there were few publishers willing to print books by women, hence one of the reasons why so many women published under male names: Georges Sand, the Bronte sisters, and Andre Norton (Alice Mary Norton), among others.  C. J. Cherryh made up her name for the same reason and the Bronte sisters "...chose the neutral pen-names of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell, not wishing to expose themselves to the prejudice or the condescension then often displayed by critics towards women writers, but scrupling to take names positively masculine." Thus they cloaked their identities. None of that would have been necessary had publishing been more catholic in their acquisition of writers of both genders. 

The point is that publishers have a vested interest in keeping writers thinking like hostages and Amazon has changed that. Even in the 21st century, women are considered second class citizens despite their best selling status. Even Oprah chooses more male writers for her book club. But that is a topic for another time.

The point is that Hatchette wants to control the price to keep their bank accounts hefty and flourishing while forcing their biggest distributor, Amazon, to knuckle under and not discount prices. Hatchette hasn't thought very hard on this subject or they would see that if Amazon follows the policy of high eBook prices then their customers will go elsewhere for books, like remainder bins and secondhand bookstores and third party sellers since they won't be able to afford to buy the books at Hatchette's inflated prices. Now that is what I call bottom line thinking, which is all about greed and not about doing what's best for authors. Hatchette authors would see that if they would just take off the blinkers and be willing to go independent or force publishers to give them better terms. Joe Konrath said it best when he said that Hatchette, and the other members of the Big 5 Publishers, own their asses.

Signing a publishing contract means you will likely be relegated to the mid-list, which also happens to be the engine that keeps the Big 5 running, while they cater to and give the Cadillac treatment to a small cadre of authors, like Scott Turow, James Patterson (who is basically a cottage industry churning out books by the dozens), and others.

A few years ago a budding writer acquaintance submitted a proposal to a literary agent. She was intent on getting a specific agent to represent her work and sent her proposal and a letter to said agent who turned her down without a second thought. We put our heads together and reworked the proposal for the nonfiction book and submitted it to a small publishing house. She got the contract, which she then took and immediately went back to the agent who had turned her down and asked for another chance. She got her chance and the agent signed her -- for the same book she had proposed earlier and been refused. What did the agent have to lose?


The agent didn't have to pitch the book to anyone. She didn't have to work with the writer because the publisher's editor would do that. The agent didn't even have to break a sweat to sign on the dotted line to represent the author and take 15% of the profits for the life of the book because the author did all the work for her.

Hatchette is using the same tactic. They hold authors in bondage to onerous contracts that give them the rights to publish the authors' works and do what they will with them. Unless they are Turow or Patterson, the authors won't have control of cover art or marketing or anything but writing. Some authors find that an equable deal, but it's really not. They just sold their soul to the devil for 7-1/2 pieces of silver. Even Judas got the full 30 pieces first, but then he bargained for himself and didn't have a publisher taking 75% of his money for doing very little.

How many authors get the kind of media blitz that Patterson or Turow get? Especially in the midlist ranks? Andre Norton told me that her publishers never gave her more than a $35K advance because that is how many books usually sold. Of course, they didn't take into account that they were holding Norton's back list hostage and not reprinting the books and that Norton fans scoured secondhand bookstore shelves to own one of her books. Norton lived a good life, but she was by no means as wealthy as Turow or Patterson even though some of her books were optioned for movies. She just did not have the power and the publisher refused to let any of the power they did have slip through their fingers.

Publishing is slavery of a kind and Hatchette wants to keep its slaves ignorant of the facts and under the Hatchette thumb. Publishers tout their editing, marketing, cover art, and connections as the reason to stay with them since all of that would fall on poor authors' shoulders and take away from their time to write. Authors don't want to become publishers, they just want to write books. I guess authors haven't figured out they can hire someone to do the same thing publishers do for a small fee, or even a small percentage, and keep 85% to 90% of their profits. That is news that Hatchette and the other members of the Big 5 don't want authors to know.

The point is that Hatchette is just the first of the Big 5 to run this gauntlet with Amazon, not because Amazon is so powerful and putting the squeeze on Hatchette, but because Amazon keeps Hatchette in business by selling more books than any other outlet -- because Amazon keeps the prices low with deep discounts, discounts that Hatchette wants to control. And we are back to the same argument that the DOJ already ruled on 2 years ago. Hatchette still wants to fix prices and Amazon says NO.

If Hatchette wins against Amazon, book prices will go up and stay up and who really wants to pay $20 for an eBook when they can get 2 or even 6 books for the same price and buy Hatchette's authors' books secondhand or from remainder outlets? Even the math challenged can figure out that 2 and 6 are more than 1.

Hatchette is leading the charge for the rest of the Big 5. What happens to them will pave the way for the other publishers who want to keep fixing prices and keep them high. I don't think Amazon will lose this negotiation because Hatchette needs Amazon more than Amazon needs Hatchette and the rest of the Big 5. As that fact sinks into Hatchette's legal minds, they will be forced to negotiate and thus the rest of the Big 5 will fall into line. Ultimately, Amazon does not have to carry Hatchette authors, but Hatchette needs Amazon's consumers, and it has nothing to do with protecting their authors. They are protecting the usurious profits made on the backs of their authors.

The writing is on the wall.

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