Baffingly obtuse reaction among authors to the Amazon-Hachette dispute

“Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to reform (or pause and reflect).”
– Mark Twain, Notebook, 1904

mytwocentsWhen I first heard of Amazon’s “bullying” tactics against Hachette, I was shouting angrily right along with the herd … I mean crowd.

Actually, no. I mean herd.

Taking Twain’s advice, I looked a little deeper into my knee-jerk alignment with the majority. You don’t have to look deeper, now, because the tawdry timeline has been laid out in the letter Amazon sent to writers and lit agents a few days back. Skip to the bottom to read the full letter; I’ve put the timeline in bold.

The allegations there include Hachette stumbling their way past the expiration of their contract with Amazon, ignoring attempts by Amazon to behave like a responsible and professional partner by dealing with that expiration before it happened, taking months to respond to business correspondence from Amazon, failing to keep their word on providing a timely counteroffer, and failure to diligently and promptly represent the best interests of their authors and customers.

As I pointed out earlier, Hachette’s response really doesn’t do much to refute the allegations. In one particularly bizarre response, Hachette characterized Amazon not honoring the contract Hachette allowed to expire as imposing “sanctions” on Hachette books. Do they understand how business works?

Is Amazon’s economic scale a problem? Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. But that doesn’t mean the entitled oafishness of publishers like Hachette should simply be ignored. The cultural malaise of traditional publishers is far more problematic for authors and readers than the sheer immensity of Amazon. And, the absurdity only gets worse…

Most of the media coverage has been about the fact that Amazon is still selling Hachette books after Hachette let the contract expire, but not on equal footing with books from publishers who have maintained a current contract. Apparently, in some twisted world where Amazon is expected to behave in a charitable way that no other retailer would be expected to, there’s something wicked and evil and nefarious in the company’s failure to treat equally merchandise from conscientious contract partners and merchandise from a company that has conducted business with all the diligence and integrity of strung-out frat boy.

The ire being directed toward Amazon in this particular case is a sad display of poorly-thought-out Tall Poppy Syndrome. I’ve got severe gripes against the retail giant myself, but some publishing websites (like Melville House) have become so rabidly anti-Amazon that it’s verging on self-parody.

Moreover, not taking Twain’s advice, authors are piling onto the pile of piled-on pilers, eager to knock the over-achieving Amazon down a few notches, by signing a joint letter riddled with links to stories that depict as bullying, tyrannical, and repressive Amazon’s continued selling of Hachette books after Hachette fumbled the contract expiration.  A lot of the complaining is about Amazon “delaying” shipment, or not taking pre-orders, or refusing to discount books … books from a publisher that has no contract with Amazon because they ignored Amazon’s communications, ignored the expiration deadline, and ignored their own promised date of a counteroffer!

Amazon isn’t delaying or refusing anything. They’re going the extra mile to offer services they are under absolutely zero contractual obligation to offer at all.


Will The Real Bullies Please Stand Down?

And that is really the point. The fact that these books are still on Amazon’s website at all, while Hachette continues to fumble the expired contract, is pure largess. To characterize it as “bullying” simply because Amazon is the larger contender in a conflict the other guy started (and is still perpetuating through bad faith behavior) is wildly irrational and has no logical, moral, ethical, or legal foundation whatsoever.

After Hachette ignored Amazon’s correspondence and sauntered past the deadline (a deadline Hachette’s lawyers presumably knew about), Amazon unilaterally extended the expired contract through April under the same terms. Now, we’re calling them a “bully” for not extending those conditions indefinitely while the other party stalls and stumble along like a horde of incompetent buffoons months later? Give me a break.

Here’s the thing people complaining about Amazon’s “bullying tactics” don’t understand. Amazon isn’t a public service. Amazon is a business that works with other businesses through contracts. Contracts like the one Hachette blundered past its expiration date.

Absent a current contract, Amazon doesn’t have to sell your book, or offer it for pre-order, or deliver it the same time it delivers other books. Amazon could have simply removed Hachette books from its website altogether the moment Hachette stumbled like a half-asleep drunkard over the expiration date Amazon tried to work out with them months before. But they didn’t. They unilaterally extended Hachette’s contract (while the publishers sat on their hands) and have patiently waited while Hachette fumbled one overture after another.

Every single Hachette book delivery to customers by Amazon (no matter how “delayed”) and every single dollar earned by Hachette authors from Amazon during that lapse never had to happen. Those things happened because Amazon managed its business better and more generously than Hachette did.

But never mind that! What a bully Amazon is for not treating Hachette books exactly like books from publishers with current contracts, who negotiated in good faith, and maintain timely communications! Tyranny!

Mobbing behavior among birds, from which the term for social bullying among humans is derived.
Defensive mobbing behavior among birds, from which the term for relationally aggressive social bullying among humans is derived.

And, here’s the thing that makes all this look utterly silly: any standard that a rational, ethical person would apply to Amazon would have to apply to any other retailer. Absent a current contract, no bookstore is obligated to sell your book, offer it for pre-order, or give it equal placement with other books. Is it “bullying tactics” if your local brick-and-mortar refuses to put a publisher’s books on the up-front displays until a contract renewal can be worked out? No.

On the other hand, is it bullying tactics when a massive crowd of groupthinking enemies start demanding you go to lengths nobody else is expected to, while slapping derogatory names on you for your failure to comply to their biased demands and coordinating an effort to materially harm your livelihood based on these discriminatory expectations? Yes, that actually is bullying, a well-documented phenomenon called mobbing.

In the animal world, mobbing evolved as a defensive behavior. Humans, one might reasonably expect, would have better and more rational ways than social bullying to address the market concerns of Amazon’s success.

And, certainly smarter ways than simply letting the greater evil, Hachette, act like a victim or a martyr.


Professionalism & the Oligopoly Question

The attitude of Amazon’s critics, that the company is somehow obligated to treat authors of a company that’s behaving obnoxiously the same as other authors, that not doing so means they are “singling out” those authors for “retaliation”— This is the thinking of people who, like the stumbling and stalling clods at Hachette, clearly don’t understand adult responsible behavior.

Amazon is under no obligation to deliver Hachette books at all, much less according to discounts and delivery timetables enjoyed by authors whose companies don’t pratfall through a half-year of business negotiations the way Hachette has been doing. And, why on Earth would Amazon offer Hachette books for pre-order when the company strolled whistling past the contract expiration months after being contacted about it, then simply glided over the counteroffer due date that they set themselves? They’ve proven to be faithless partners and incompetent negotiators, unpredictable, unreliable, untrustworthy. Why bog down your accounts with pre-orders from a company that doesn’t seem to care about any future business relationship?

Amazon’s monstrous size notwithstanding (and I’m the last to claim that Amazon’s market share isn’t problematic for competition), Hachette is the bumbling bad guy here and the best thing that could happen to their authors is that Hachette gets forced out of business. Go find a publisher who remembers their own contract deadlines and responds to correspondence as if they were getting paid for it.

If we want to talk about the issue of Amazonian oligopoly, that’s important, but it’s an entirely different discussion. (For example, check out how the French are confronting the problem.)

In this particular case, however, Hachette authors are being treated unnecessarily nicely by Amazon, and it’s the publisher who is acting like an entitled oaf who has grown fat and lazy on unearned profit. It’s time to stop pretending Hachette is the victim of anything but their own incompetence.


The Full Letter

Dear XX,

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.

Here’s what we’re thinking of proposing to them:

• If Hachette agrees, for as long as this dispute lasts, Hachette authors would get 100% of the sales price of every Hachette e-book we sell. Both Amazon and Hachette would forego all revenue and profit from the sale of every e-book until an agreement is reached.

• Amazon would also return to normal levels of on-hand print inventory, return to normal pricing in all formats, and for books that haven’t gone on sale yet, reinstate pre-orders.

Here’s an example: if we sell a book at $9.99, the author would get the full $9.99, many multiples of what they would normally get. We can begin implementing this arrangement in 72 hours if Hachette agrees.

We haven’t sent this offer to Hachette yet — we’re sending this to a few authors and agents to get feedback first.

What do you think?  Would this be helpful, especially for midlist and debut authors?

Can we talk on the phone later today or tomorrow once you’ve had a chance to digest?

Thanks and look forward to talking.

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