Burying the Hachette

DISCLAIMER: The views presented in today’s post do not necessarily reflect those of Writer Unboxed or its other contributors. They are solely the opinions of the author of this post, and should not be read while drinking, operating heavy machinery, or reading the works of Clive Cussler (although it might be fun to try doing all those things at the same time).

I’m going to risk pissing some people off today, but I’ve been watching the ongoing Amazon/Hachette drama recently, and I feel the need to share some observations that will likely stray from the viewpoints of many traditionally published authors. Some context: I’m a published author (both traditionally and self-published), and I also have a master’s degree in business, so I’m inclined to look at this situation from more than one angle. And what I’m finding doesn’t align well with the oversimplified bumper-sticker conclusions I see many people drawing; in particular, the “Amazon is evil” mantra that is being adopted by many conventionally published authors.

Some facts and thoughts about who sells what

Many authors seem to feel that Amazon has an obligation to sell Hachette’s books. In a blog post that James Patterson oh-so-dramatically entitled “Read four of the most important paragraphs I’ll ever write,” the author has gone so far as to suggest that Amazon’s current tactic of “making it difficult [emphasis mine] to order many books from Little, Brown and Grand Central,” is something so morally heinous and evil that the practice “has to be changed – by law, if necessary – immediately, if not sooner.”

In citing Amazon as being flat-out criminal in its decision to make ordering certain books “difficult” (because let’s face it, we all know how darn difficult it is to find and purchase a James Patterson book), Patterson is apparently ignoring the fact that:

No store sells everything.
In brick-and-mortar stores, this is a function of limited shelf space. Retailers need to pick and choose what they sell, based on what they can afford, what they have room to stock and display, and what markets they’re trying to serve. As consumers, we accept this, and we develop our own sense of where to purchase the various goods we desire, without condemning any stores as being “evil” for not carrying a specific product we seek. And certainly without asking the Department of Justice to step in.

Lacking the physical constraints of a brick-and-mortar store, Amazon admittedly comes closer than most to being a “store that sells everything,” as demonstrated by exotic and unusual product offerings like the utterly essential Hutzler 571 Banana Slicer, or this perfect-for-any-occasion Horse Head Mask (bonus: read the reviews for a good laugh). But even Amazon is subject to the reality that:

No store CAN sell everything.
Even if they wanted to, not every retailer has access to every product line. For example, Trek is one of the most popular bicycle brands in the world. But you can’t buy their bikes at Target. Nor on Amazon. Nor at Walmart. That’s because Trek has chosen to only sell their products at bicycle shops, a move that both limits their products’ availability, and increases the likelihood of expert sales and service. This choice seems to work, given the brand’s popularity, and I’ve yet to hear of the company being compared to the devil. This leads us to the even more important fact that:

No store is obligated to sell anything.
This is the Big Point that Amazon’s detractors keep ignoring. Neither Amazon nor any other retailer is obligated to sell a specific product line. Just because I create a cool line of T-shirts doesn’t mean I can talk Target into selling them. On the contrary, vendors have to compete for shelf space at successful retailers. And that competition can become truly brutal with powerful retailers like Walmart.

Retailers playing hardball with their suppliers is nothing new. And if you regularly shop at Walmart, you really don’t have a leg to stand on in condemning Amazon’s practices.

When I was in business school, we had many guest lecturers, but in particular I remember a former Van Heusen executive who told us some horrifying tales of the pressures Walmart had put on his company, and the disastrous consequences that ensued – for Van Heusen, not for Walmart. For an example of Walmart’s power over its suppliers, watch this portion of the PBS Frontline documentary “Is Wal-Mart Good for America?” Aired in 2004 (back when the company was still hyphenating its name), this episode shows the key role Walmart played in the rise and fall of Rubbermaid, in a chilling glimpse at the power a big retailer can have over its suppliers. The whole series is excellent, and offers a sobering look at the high cost of serving and cultivating a marketplace that focuses primarily on price.

My point? Retailers playing hardball with their suppliers is nothing new. And if you regularly shop at Walmart, you really don’t have a leg to stand on in condemning Amazon’s practices, which pale in comparison to some of the draconian measures employed by the Arkansas-based big-box behemoth. (Oh, and for an added dose of irony, most authors – myself included – would KILL to have their books sold at Walmart, since getting placement on their shelves is such a huge strategic sales advantage.)

But these are books, and Amazon is a bookstore, dammit!

Um, no – it really isn’t.

This is something that many people forget, or simply haven’t realized: Amazon is not a bookstore. It’s not Barnes & Noble on steroids. It’s much more like Costco, or Target, or Walmart: a powerful retailer meeting a wide span of consumer needs at discounted prices. According to articles in The New Yorker and Forbes, Amazon’s US book sales make up only 7% of the company’s $75 billion in total yearly revenue. In other words, books are just part of the massive product line Amazon stocks, so one publishing house’s books aren’t going to make or break it. The reality is that Amazon could stop selling Hachette books entirely, with minimal impact to their overall revenue.

Amazon is not a bookstore. It’s not Barnes & Noble on steroids. It’s much more like Costco, or Target, or Walmart.

Sobering as that reality may be, this actually represents a sound business practice. If your success depends entirely on one line of products, or one brand, then you’ve fallen into the whole “all your eggs in one basket” scenario, which you don’t need an MBA to know is a bad idea. A diversified portfolio – whether we’re talking products, services, stocks and bonds, or whatever – is always a prudent bet.

Of Satan and shoes

Amazon detractors are also wringing their hands over the fact that on the product pages of some Hachette books, Amazon is blatantly pointing people to other competing titles. OMG – that is a whole new form of diabolical treachery, taking their uber-satanic evilness to a whole new level!

Only it isn’t.

If you’re in a shoe store, and the shoe you like isn’t available in your size, what does any decent salesperson do? They point out some similar shoes that they hope might interest you. It’s hardly a new practice, nor is it necessarily evil. At the worst it might be mildly annoying. And at its best, you might end up with a rockin’ new pair of shoes.

A balanced viewpoint from a Hachette author

It’s easy to be armchair quarterbacks as we watch this contest unfold, so I wanted to also share some perspectives from someone who’s actually on the playing field.

The always provocative author/self-publishing pioneer/pundit JA Konrath has established himself as a harsh critic of conventional publishing. His arguments are often both polarizing and unyielding (to put it mildly), so I was intrigued when he recently stepped aside and featured a guest post from a conventionally published author, who offered one of the most balanced perspectives I’ve seen on the Amazon-Hachette impasse. Konrath’s guest poster, Michael J. Sullivan, is a fulltime novelist who definitely has real skin in the game, with multiple books published by Orbit (Hachette’s fantasy imprint). I think Sullivan sums things up brilliantly here:

In today’s landscape, publishers are in a tight spot, but they have only themselves to blame. For years their “customer” was the retail channel. They didn’t foster a direct relationship with readers and as such ceded that ground to Amazon. Back when Amazon was gaining dominance, why didn’t they build a site to sell directly to readers? Oh, I forgot…they did. It’s called Bookish and it’s been a miserable failure plagued by delays, poor management, a terrible online experience, and rather than discounting books they sell at full price. Is Amazon “evil” for building a really good mousetrap? Similarly, there was a huge outcry when Amazon bought Goodreads. But why didn’t any of the publishers pick it up first? A site with millions of readers talking about and sharing books, and no one but Amazon saw the value in such an asset? It’s unfair for the publishers to criticize Amazon for their own lack of vision.

So yes, there is an imbalance of power, and Amazon is in a position of strength. It’s because Amazon has been smart, forward thinking and innovative while publishers have plodded along with a “business as usual” mentality, leaving them behind the times. Does Amazon have to give publishers special treatment for their poor choices?

I hope Sullivan’s remarks don’t get him in trouble with Hachette, but I have to say, I find his candor and analysis far more compelling than the chest-thumping of authors like Patterson, who has no problem complaining about Amazon all the way to the bank. Hmmm – here’s a thought: Since he seemingly fears for the future of the entire American culture, maybe Patterson could donate the Amazon-generated portion of his earnings to some noble cause, like the Save Our Adverbs Partnership (SOAP), or my recently hatched nonprofit organization: “Friends Don’t Let Friends Read Cussler.” (Sadly, attempts to secure donations from Patterson have gone unanswered to date.)

Biting Gently nibbling the hand that feeds you

Colbert’s new campaign

In one of the latest chapters in this soap opera/war story, TV personality (and Hachette author) Stephen Colbert jumped on the anti-Amazon bandwagon, slamming the company publicly – and hilariously – in what I interpret as one of the first smart moves Big Publishing has made in terms of a PR counteroffensive.

We all know (I hope) that Colbert is an entertainer pretending to be a pundit, and that his primary goal is to make us laugh. But I can’t help noticing that Colbert’s books are still on sale at Amazon. Oh, and so are Patterson’s. As well as books by everybody else who’s complaining so vocally. This article in The Guardian calls these authors out for this apparent hypocrisy:

But look: if Amazon is indeed doing so much to destroy literature and all the rest, if the situation really is so dire that the US government has to pass laws to fix it, why haven’t Patterson, Robinson, Russo, Turow and other anti-Amazon authors demanded that their publishers pull their books from Amazon? How can someone condemn a company’s evil, monopolistic, culture- and livelihood-destroying ways … while continuing to make millions of dollars working with that company?

Good question. So far, none of the authors named above have responded.

Hitting close to home

I think the reason this issue is such a hot-button for us is that as writers we are all picturing the horrible notion of OUR books being the ones that are affected. From that viewpoint, it’s easy to blame Amazon, to consider them the bully. After all, they’re the ones hindering these books from being sold, right?

Wrong.

There are TWO sides to this. It’s not a blockade; it’s a tug of war. And the books are just the rope.

Yes, Amazon is flexing its considerable muscle. But keep in mind that for now, Hachette has decided to allow their authors’ books to become the casualties of this tug-of-war. And – this is key – the authors have absolutely no say in that decision.

It’s not a blockade; it’s a tug of war. And the books are just the rope.

Sorry, but I can’t place all the blame on only one end of that rope. I feel genuinely bad for the Hachette authors whose sales may be impacted, but I cannot jump on the anti-Amazon bandwagon. Frankly, I’ve never been much of a bandwagon-jumper, and I doubt that will change, because issues like these are so rarely black-and-white.

What do YOU think?

As I stated in my opening disclaimer, these are just my thoughts, based on what I know and what I’ve seen so far. But far greater minds than mine are focused on this issue, so I’d love to hear your input (even if it’s just to call me a big poopyhead). Please chime in, and as always, thanks for reading!

 

Image licensed from iStockphoto.com

 

About Keith Cronin

Author of the novels ME AGAIN, published by Five Star/Gale; and TONY PARTLY CLOUDY (published under his pen name Nick Rollins), Keith Cronin is a corporate speechwriter and professional rock drummer who has performed and recorded with artists including Bruce Springsteen, Clarence Clemons, and Pat Travers. Keith's fiction has appeared in Carve Magazine, Amarillo Bay, The Scruffy Dog Review, Zinos, and a University of Phoenix management course. A native of South Florida, Keith spends his free time serenading local ducks and squirrels with his ukulele.