Not that Goliath needs defending, but … Hachette is not the David you’re looking for

mytwocentsSometimes, the underdog is the bad guy. I know, I know this is anathema to American sentiments. But sometimes, every now and then, the little guy is the greater of two evils who deserves what the Big Bad Tough dishes out.

So, let’s talk about Hachette v. Amazon.

It seems these days like Amazon is the tall poppy everyone is eager to take a whack at. And, I’m no fan of the near-monopoly power enjoyed by giants like Amazon, Walmart, Google, etc. in a what should be a merit-rewarding, competitive market economy. Amazon’s god-like reach is indisputably problematic.

But, there’s something to be said about the indispensable power of sheer power to sweep out poor practices.

Consider the latest uproar over Amazon’s offer—widely dismissed as a PR stunt—to give Hachette authors 100 percent of ebook sales until the current pricing dispute is settled. Actually, don’t consider the uproar or the offer. Consider instead the allegations of bumbling and stalling that Amazon has levied against Hachette, and Hachette’s ironically confessional reaction to them.

Amazon pins the necessity of its author-relief proposal on Hachette’s “unresponsiveness.” Let’s take a close read of the reasoning in Amazon’s mass-blasted letter to writers and lit agents. I would highlight the key parts, but the timeline Amazon lays out is so crammed full of damning facts that the entire second paragraph would be lit up like a supernova:

I wanted to ask your opinion about an idea we’ve had that would take authors out of the middle of the Hachette-Amazon dispute (actually it would be a big windfall for authors) and would motivate both Hachette and Amazon to work faster to resolve the situation.

Our first choice would be to resolve a dispute like this through discussion only. We tried that already. We reached out to Hachette for the first time to discuss terms at the beginning of January for our contract which terminated in March. We heard nothing from them for three full months. We extended the contract into April under existing terms. Still nothing. In fact we got no conversation at all from Hachette until we started reducing our on-hand print inventory and reducing the discounts we offer customers off their list prices. Even since then, weeks have gone by while we waited for them to get back to us. After our last proposal to them on June 5th, they waited a week to respond at all, promising a counteroffer the following week. We are still waiting a month later.

We agree that authors are caught in the middle while these negotiations drag on, and we’re particularly sensitive to the effect on debut and midlist authors. But Hachette’s unresponsiveness and unwillingness to talk until we took action put us in this position, and unless Hachette dramatically changes their negotiating tempo, this is going to take a really long time…

In other words, Hachette ignored a query about a pending contract expiration, bumbled their way past the expiration date, blew off the other party’s rather generous (considering Hachette’s behavior) unilateral extension, stalled and/or stumbled their way through weeks of responsibility to their authors, then dropped the ball on their own promised deadline for response.

For their part, Hachette told the Wall Street Journal:

We made an offer in April that was the largest we ever made to any retailer, and in May made another that was higher still. Both offers were rejected.

How weird! That matches up to the timeline in Amazon’s allegation. Hachette made an offer in April for a contract that expired in March, in response to a communication in January? I’m sorry, but that is unacceptably incompetent and/or unethical. You’d have to be blind not to see that Hachette is in the wrong here, however mismatched the weight of the two contenders.

And let’s revisit the final part of that negotiation: “After our [Amazon’s] last proposal to them on June 5th, they waited a week to respond at all, promising a counteroffer the following week. We are still waiting a month later.” Publishers like Hachette, who don’t even want to carry out their promotional duties for authors any more, apparently also can’t respond to to the business environment at any pace that would be considered reasonable since the invention of the telegraph.

Sweep these buffoons out of the businees, I say.

And, Hachette’s self-exculpatory braggadocio about their offer is vacuous. So, they offered Amazon more than they’ve ever offered anyone else? That relative claim tells us precisely zip, zilch, nothing. What sorts of deals are they accustomed to offering retailers? If they’re habitually meager, putting a little something on top (after ignoring communication for months and tripping over an expired contract) is nothing to brag about. There’s an ocean of difference between being generous and being marginally less stingy, so how did Hachette’s late offer compare to industry averages? And how do those industry averages break down in regard to consumer prices and author compensation? Because that’s what we’re really talking about here, isn’t it? Oddly, I’ve found nobody doing any real analysis on that. (And, I don’t have the resources to do it, or I would.)

Bottom line: Hachette is in the wrong here, folks. Just because they’re smaller of two contenders doesn’t mean they’re the lesser of two evils.


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