Douglas Preston: On Amazon, Hachette, and Indie Authors

"We're not against Amazon. And we're not for Hachette at all."

Douglas Preston's new Gideon Crew novel with his longtime co-author Lincoln Child is titled The Lost Island. It's to be released Tuesday -- 5 August -- in both the UK and the States.

At Amazon.co.uk, you can pre-order the hardcover and audiobook for 5 August. You can also pre-order the paperback for its later release, March 31 of next year. No Kindle edition is listed.

In the US at Amazon.com, you can pre-order only the audiobook from Hachette Audio ($18.38 at this writing) or an audio CD edition produced by Blackstone Audio ($40.64). Neither the hardcover nor paperback can be found: for those, you're invited to request an email "when this item becomes available." No Kindle edition is listed.

Preston says he doesn't know why the Hachette Audio edition of The Lost Island may be available for pre-order in the States when other editions are being suppressed at Amazon.com.

"I've heard from other people that it's hard to figure out which books are being affected," he says. "I don't have an answer for that."

He notes that he isn't in nearly so vulnerable a position as other authors are.

"Unfortunately, Amazon's actions are hurting, most of all, the debut and midlist authors who haven't yet built up a loyal audience. I'm okay, and the bestselling authors, we have an audience and they're going to find our books one way or another.

The Lost Island cover"But for someone who's labored for years to produce a book and that first book is coming out, and then all of a sudden Amazon does this. It's crushing" for such authors to run into Amazon's suppression of Hachette pre-orders, delivery slowdowns of Hachette books, and removal of usual discounts.

"But we're not against Amazon. And we're not for Hachette at all. We're really trying not to take sides. We're just asking Amazon to resolve its issues with Hachette without affecting authors, without dragging us into it."

As he and the "Authors United" group of writers he leads in protest of Amazon's actions relative to Hachette products, he says that Amazon's Russ Grandinetti, VP for Kindle Content, has said to him that "he felt that every time our group took a step, that we were impeding a solution because we  were encouraging Hachette to hang tight and, quote, 'let their authors fight their battles for them.'"

"But we're not fighting anyone's battle for them," Preston says. "I'm not even in contact with Hachette. They have nothing to do with it. We're just fighting our own battle.

"We just want to be able to write our books, and have them sold fairly at the largest bookseller in the world and not have those sales blocked or impeded. "If Amazon were a small bookseller, it wouldn't be so concerning. But they have 41 percent of the entire book market and, like, 55 percent of the entire ebook market.  Amazon sells probably half the books I sell. So it's very concerning to me.

"These large corporations should be able to settle their differences without hurting authors."

"Books are different from toasters and wide-screen TV sets"

Good-humored, genial in conversation, careful in how he chooses his words, Douglas Preston breathes no fire during a 30-minute interview about the letter he wrote at the beginning of this month.

The Monster of Florence coverThe drama one might encounter in one of his and Child's Gideon Crew novels is nowhere to be found. Instead, you hear something closer to the calm precision you find on the pages of his 2008 nonfiction account of an actual, harrowing Italian serial-murder case, The Monster of Florence: A True Story.

His widely circulated commentary about Amazon and Hachette, he points out, was a letter "to our readers," not a petition, as it's sometimes called. Its full text is in this story of 3 July from The Bookseller's Philip Jones.

The actual request made in the letter was, indeed, directed to readers. And it asked that they contact Amazon's founding CEO Jeff Bezos "and tell him what you think."

"I think we have about 900 signers" now, Preston says, "maybe a few more."

Why now? Why this month?

"It was when the evidence emerged," he says, "that Amazon had been holding certain books  hostage and delaying delivery of other books as a negotiating tactic in a dispute with Hachette. I felt that was unfair. We [authors] had not done anything to Amazon and aren't party to the dispute. And I felt it was unfair of Amazon to target authors as a means of leverage. That's what gave me the idea that we should try to address the situation, to try to change Jeff Bezos' mind."

It might surprise some observers how highly this author speaks of Amazon. He hasn't paused yet:

"I think most of us think that Amazon is a good company," he says. "We're grateful to it for selling our books. We've been a partner to it, we've been supporting Amazon from the very beginning, from the time it was a start-up. And we've felt a little bit betrayed by this. I'm speaking to you now, not as an official spokesman for anybody. That's how I felt personally, and it's turned out a lot of other authors felt the same way.

"I didn't like what Barnes and Noble did" when it declined to sell certain Simon & Schuster titles in its stores last summer during a contract dispute. "And the Macmillan thing" -- when buy buttons were removed from Macmillan titles' Amazon pages in a separate dispute -- "that was difficult, too.

"I guess our feeling is that there are going to be disputes between Amazon and publishers forever. There are going to be negotiations...these are two large corporations," Hachette and Amazon. "Is this going to be Amazon's MO [mode of operation] from now on? -- to  hurt authors and inconvenience their own customers every time they run into a rough patch negotiating with a publisher? I guess our feeling is that that's not acceptable."

The full-page New York Times ad intended to follow Preston's initial letter, he says, is still on tap. Supporters of his protest are contributing to its cost and "we have a little way left to go" in raising the money, Preston says.

"The feeling we have is that books are different from toasters and wide-screen television sets. You can't outsource Lee Child to China. They should not be treated as if they're boxes of cereal occupying grocery store shelves. These are books and authors and writers whose livelihoods are affected by this."

The overtures that Amazon has floated and Hachette has rejected -- primarily proposing that Hachette-Amazon book-sale revenues go entirely to Hachette authors during the negotiating period, or to charity -- are each Preston says, "a lopsided proposal which would severely impact the publisher financially but wouldn't impact Amazon financially very much at all.

"It's almost like an attempt to ask authors to load Amazon's guns for them. And I don't think it's a serious attempt to bridge a gap, I think it's simply an attempt to divide authors from their publishers."

The gun-loading reference is interesting, as The Bookseller has reported an Amazon spokesperson telling Publishers Weekly: "You have to look at the parent company--Lagardère Group--rather than just the Hachette division. Kindle books are only 1 percent of Lagardère Group's sales. They can afford it, and should stop using their authors as human shields."

"Let's not fight. We're not against independent publishing at all."

"There's a lot of stuff going around the Web, and views  being imputed to us," Preston says, "views being imposed on us that are not accurate. People saying [for example] that we're for higher ebook prices. Well that's absurd. We haven't made any comments about ebook prices. I think if you looked at our list of signers, you'd probably find that most of us were in favor of lower ebook prices and discounted books."

Here may be common ground: Not long after our interview, Seattle posts an update to its Kindle Forum Amazon/Hachette Business Interruption memo, presented as an explication of its objectives. "A key objective is lower ebook prices...at $9.99, the total pie is bigger - how does Amazon propose to share that revenue pie? We believe 35 percent should go to the author, 35 percent to the publisher and 30 percent to Amazon." 

Meanwhile, Preston continues reacting to comments from detractors: "And then they say we're calling for a boycott of Amazon. Absolutely not. We're not calling for a boycott. I'm an Amazon Prime member and I'm still using the company. I guess I'd put it this way: you can be against a war and still be a patriotic citizen. I'm an Amazon customer, I'm just taking exception to this one thing they're doing."

"Amazon has done a great service for the cultural life of this country by creating and expanding the indie publishing model. I think it's one of the best things they've done. I'm totally in favor of it. I think it's absolutely fantastic.

"But I'll say this: there certainly should be room for both indie publishers and traditional publishers, for indie authors and traditional authors. I think we're all in the same leaky boat, and we should be bailing together. I think we should be friends.

"Most of the world doesn't give a damn about books and reading, frankly. Ninety percent of the world not only doesn't give a damn about books, they're actually hostile to books. So traditional authors and indie authors have a lot in common and should be friends."

Preston says the independent authors' petition of 4 July that followed his letter caught him by surprise. You can hear a certain tone of dismay in his voice on the point: "Let's not fight. We're not against independent publishing at all."

To the contrary, Preston says, as a founder of the International Thriller Writers (ITW) organization, he urged acceptance of non-traditionally published authors "six years ago -- and we were the first organization to do that. Previous to that, in order to get into these organizations, you had to demonstrate that you were published by a quote-unquote 'official' publisher. We said, 'You know, that publishing model is disappearing. And there are a lot of indie authors out there who are absolute 100-percent professional authors who have sold lots of books, they're writing fantastic work, we have to create a way for those authors to join ITW...So we did that.

"And I'm giving this to you because I want you and everyone else to understand how much we are in favor of self-publishing and indie publishing. I personally am and other authors [in his group are].

"So I say let's extend hands, let's shake hands, let's be friends, and not view ourselves in opposition to each other, because I don't think we should be."

When asked about the general tone that seems to pervade so much of the self-publishing community's rhetoric this summer, Preston says he thinks we hear from hotheads, but not from the wider community of authors who may not harbor hostility for the traditional publishing world.

"I think what you read online," he says, "is not necessarily how everyone feels. I think the most vociferous voices take over the online discussion. I know a lot of independent authors and self-publishing authors, they're friends of mine and colleagues of mine. And they're not mad."

He breaks into laughter, tension lifting as he goes on: "And also I know Hugh Howey quite well," Preston says, referring to the author-activist who led the co-writing with Joe Konrath of the independent author's petition that now has more than 7,500 signatures.

"I've known Hugh for a long time and I have tremendous affection for him and respect for him. And I don't think we're on different sides of the issue. But he feels very strongly about how publishing should be. And he's a person with integrity. He's a good guy. We just happen to disagree about this, that's all."

Indeed, Howey followed the independents' petition's release with his own commentary and a brief account of a conversation with Preston: Douglas Preston and I agree.

"There has to be a way we can settle this without a lot of bruises all around"

"Authors do tend to be independent in the way they think," Preston says. "Hugh is a nice person. And Hugh feels that Hachette forced Amazon to take these steps, that in order to get Hachette's attention, it had to do what it did."

In speaking with Amazon's Grandinetti -- "he's called me a couple of times" -- Preston says he's heard the same thing from him, as well, an assertion that Amazon, in Preston's take on Grandinetti's words, "had to do this to show Hachette that we were serious."

"But my response to that would be, 'Nobody forced you to do it. I mean, how old are we?' Look, we all have choices. And Amazon is a very powerful company...No one made it do anything."

As for the choice of the name "Authors United" for Preston's group, which some have said seems an insult at a time when there's division among authors, he says this was simply a spur-of-the-moment choice. He was opening an escrow account for the Times ad to come -- as supporters were making contributions to pay for it -- and he needed to call it something.

"It's just an expression that we're united in this one thing. There's really a great diversity of opinion among the letter signers about such things as the right price of an ebook, how should publishing look at the future...what kinds of royalties authors should get...but the one united thing we all share is asking Amazon, as simple as this: just settle your differences with Hachette without hurting authors. That's all."

Preston sounds weary but determined. And while there have been reports recently of a "long-term strategy" for his Authors United effort, he sounds as if he'd be all too happy to see things resolved sooner than later.

"There has to be a way we can settle this without a lot of bruises all around. I think Amazon is a fine company and I'd like to see it achieve profitabilty. I don't have anything against Amazon."

"I think we have a fairly simple goal, which is asking Amazon not to drag authors into the fight. Amazon's a big, powerful company and they have lots of negotiating tools at their disposal without actually hurting authors or inconveniencing their own customers.

"If Amazon were to say, 'Okay, we'll put the [pre-order] buttons back, we'll go ahead and sell the books the way we did before -- and we're not going to do this again' -- I think we'd close up shop" on the Authors United effort.


Join us Friday, 1st August, when our #FutureChat with The Bookseller's FutureBook community will focus on Authors United and the debate. We'll be live on Twitter from Writer's Digest's Annual Conference in Manhattan at 4 p.m. London time, 11 a.m. New York time, 8 a.m. Los Angeles, 5 p.m. Berlin, 3 p.m. GMT. 

Main image: Douglas Preston by Christine Preston 

 

 

 

 

 

Comments

Tone vs Substance

Barry Eisler's picture

Philip, the fact that you’re here responding on Preston’s behalf, and that he's not, speaks volumes.

Tell me, at this point, how would you describe a person's willingness to let someone else defend his own public statements while failing even to attempt to do so himself? Words like “cowardly” and “pathetic” and “embarrassing” come to mind, but I have a feeling you won’t approve of those, and I’m curious how you might more gently (if not accurately) characterize the behavior in question.

I have to say, objecting to words like “myopia” suggests an exceptional sensitivity to tone. If you’re suggesting Preston is in a snit because someone on the Internet didn’t offer him the respect he feels he’s entitled, I’ll have to say again… how would you characterize such a person? Would you say such a person has the courage of his convictions? Is possessed of integrity? Is behaving admirably?

If you prefer to avoid adjectives, maybe you can otherwise help me understand why Preston won’t defend his own statements?  I’m here, you’re here, David is here… where’s the guy who’s the subject of the interview?

For the record, contrary to your assertion, I didn’t call Preston "myopic or pernicious because [I] don't agree with him." This is a distortion. As I said, what makes him pernicious is that he claims, and seems honestly to believe, that he’s not taking sides in the Amazon/Hachette dispute. Given all his public statements, many of which David quotes verbatim in this thread, that is a stunningly myopic and pernicious thing to claim. Have another look at my previous comment and I think you'll see you're attributing to me things I never said. I don't know about you, but I'd rather be called a name than have someone try to put words in my mouth. But have no fear, I'm not so hurt that I refuse even to respond...:)

Maybe the heart of your and my failure to see eye-to-eye is this:

Unlike you, I’m not particularly interested in Preston’s heart, or his feelings, or the nature of his intentions. After all, he’s not running for Person of the Year, or Best Guy You’re Ever Likely To Meet, or Human Possessed of Exceptionally Virtuous Qualities. Instead, he’s a guy with a big soap box he’s using to promulgate misleading, incoherent, and potentially damaging arguments. I’m concerned about the effect of those arguments, and about the lack of integrity he consistently belies in his cowardly (uh-oh, another bad word on the Internet!) refusal to respond to his critics.

Anyway. Thanks for your feedback on my tone. Hopefully now we can focus a little more on substance. Maybe Preston will even crawl out from wherever he’s hiding and join the conversation. If he does, I promise to modify a few of my adjectives.

"We're Not Taking Sides"

It would be encouraging if Preston would respond to David Gaughran's excellent questions above. And if he would respond to the questions I asked in this post:

http://barryeisler.blogspot.com/2014/07/amazon-cancer-cure-stunt-to-sepa...

After all, isn't Preston concerned that his failure to meaningfully engage his critics is what's allowing "the most vociferous voices take over the online discussion"?

At a bare minimum, it would be a really terrific development if Preston and "Authors United" could offer even a single proposal for how Amazon and Hachette might resolve their impasse that doesn't involve Amazon simply capitulating to all Hachette's demands. Have another look at the last paragraph of Porter's post and you'll see this is exactly -- and only -- what Preston claims would be satisfactory.

Which, of course, is the ultimate laugh-line in response to Preston's persistant eye-lash batting demurral that he and "Authors United" aren't taking sides in this dispute. "We're not taking sides; we just want Amazon to stock Hachette's books on whatever terms Hachette wants!"

It's been my experience that the most partisan people believe they have no politics, that the most biased journalists believe they're entirely objective, and that the most destructive personality types truely believe they're good people with good intentions who will produce only good results. What makes people like Preston so pernicious is precisely this:  even as they fight someone else's battle, they're absolutely convinced they're as neutral as Switzerland. In other contexts, it might be funny, or it might be sad. In this one, unchecked, Preston's mypopia is apt to cause a lot of harm, which is why I'm glad to be one of the people who's working to expose "Authors United" for all the qualities Preston is too blinkered to see.

Terms

Philip Jones's picture

As I said on Twitter, it's a shame terms such as pernicious and myopia are thrown around. You might disgree with Preston's aims, but surely it is to welcomed that traditionally published authors are alive to the shifts and permutations that impact their business. And it seems to me that this "eye-lash batting demurral" cuts both ways.

Neither Amazon nor Hachette come out of this well - and our lack of detailed knowledge of the negotiations should make even the "most partisan of people" rethink their positions before digging a line in the sand. I include myself in that, incidentally.

However, he comes to it, Preston's movement at its heart seems to me to be a genuine attempt to bring both sides back to the table and remove authors from the firing line, which is the least we can all hope for.

And it's a shame that you and David want Preston to address all the ills of the book business before tackling this one: perhaps he should, and will, or perhaps others will come along to do that, but sure as hell, this shouting from the side-lines whenever someone raises their head about the parapet isn't the best encouragement.

 

Removing authors from the firing line

David Gaughran's picture

P.S. There is only one entity attempting to remove authors from the firing line and that's Amazon - who have made three proposals (not two - you guys are ignoring the first) to compensate affected authors. Preston's sole proposal in that regard has been for Amazon (not Hachette) to cave completely to Hachette's demands. Hardly bringing both sides together is it?

PPS

Philip Jones's picture

I see nothing in what Preston says about wanting Amazon to cave in to anyone's proposals. He wants Amazon to take authors out of the firing line. Amazon three proposals don't actually resolve this central issue for Preston. But I agree actually, I think it is time for Hachette to talk about how it will recompense the impacted authors: it can't all come from Amazon.

Preston & Amazon

David Gaughran's picture

I'm not quite sure how you can justify that claim re Preston and Amazon. His open letter exclusively focuses on Amazon, not Hachette. And example: "We call on Amazon to resolve its dispute with Hachette without hurting authors and without blocking or otherwise delaying the sale of books to its customers."

He doesn't call on Hachette to resolve its dispute with Amazon by meaningfully engaging in negotiations. He doesn't call on Hachette to resolve its dispute with Amazon dropping their demands to restrict Amazon's discounting. He calls on Amazon to take action, not Hachette. I thought it was pretty clear.

In any event, we are both agreed that it's time for Hachette to make a counter-proposal. You will note that Preston has made no such call. In fact, he hasn't had anything remotely critical to saw about Hachette's part in this dispute, and has exclusively criticized Amazon. You will also note that Preston has completely ignored Amazon's first offer to Hachette - the same compensation pool that Macmillan and Amazon set up in 2010, that was paid out to affected authors. I note that you are also silent on same. What's the issue with that offer?

Preston has been completely silent on that offer, and Hachette's rejection of it. That's why I don't consider him genuine. He cherry-picks what to respond to out of Amazon's statements, has completely ignored his fellow authors who have raised important points about his positions, and he acts like he speaks for all writers. He doesn't.

If Preston is genuine, then he will address these questions. If he cares about authors, then he will engage with his fellow authors. If he wants an end to the dispute, he will call on both parties to resolve the matter. He has done none of these things.

Genuine attempt?

David Gaughran's picture

I want Preston to address all the ills of the book business? If that was the case, my comment would have been twenty times longer. My comment points out the hypocrisy of Preston's position, there was no non sequitur attempt to confront him with all of publishing's ills (which are legion, but I digress). If you guys had actually asked him some hard questions, my comment would have been unnecessary.

It's pretty hilarious that you depict Preston's movement as a "genuine attempt to bring both sides back to the table." If that truly is the case why does Preston demand that only Amazon take action to end this dispute, and not Hachette? If Preston is genuine, why does he fail to engage with the other side of the debate. If Preston means what he says, and your depiction of his motives are accurate, then why does he not address the factual errors raised in his claims by me and others.

I find it quite revealing that you find Preston "genuine" when he deploys emotive language like "boycott" and "blood money" but myself and Barry are "shouting from the sidelines."

Genuine

Philip Jones's picture

I don't see Preston calling other writers myopic or pernicious because they don't agree with him, I see him calling out Amazon for its decision to delist Hachette titles.

Delisting?

David Gaughran's picture

Amazon hasn't delisted any Hachette titles, and this is the kind of twisting of the truth that Preston has continually engaged in - which is why I don't consider him genuine.

Amazon has removed Hachette's pre-order facility - which is a facility only extended to certain publishers. You call this de-listing, Preston calls it a boycott, but it is neither of these things. As we now know, Amazon and Hachette's contract has expired and the replacement contract has failed to be agreed for months now. Both sides admit that they are very far apart and they don't know when the dispute will be resolved.

In other words, it's entirely possible that Amazon doesn't want to take money from customers for titles that it can't be sure it will be able to deliver. Hachette's upcoming titles still have a product page (again, not a facility extended to all publishers) and Amazon customers can still register their desire to purchase the books when they are actually released.

It's not a boycott and it's not delisting. You could say that describing it as such is pernicious :)

Delisting

Philip Jones's picture

Yes, it's shorthand for what's happening. Preston explains it in greater detail. When The Silkworm went on sale Amazon said the expected delivery time was 1 to 2 months, and it did not put up the Kindle file until later in the day. There are other examples. Clearly, this has nothing to do with Amazon not being sure it isn't able to deliver them.

I know of (at least) two other traditional publishers that Amazon does not have a contract with, and yet Amazon continues to sell and market their titles. It is Amazon's decision to pull these titles.

For Douglas Preston

For Douglas Preston:

1. Your comments focus a lot on the loss of pre-orders on certain Hachette titles. Are you aware that self-published authors and many small presses don't have a pre-order facility on Amazon? 

2. Do you have an escalator/bonus in your contract with Hachette which kicks in if you hit the New York Times bestseller list (or similar lists)? Is this the real reason you are so upset about Amazon removing the pre-order facility?

3. Your letter described Amazon's actions as a "boycott" when it is no such thing. Here’s what a real boycott looks like. Since October last year self-publishers have been banned, en masse, from the e-bookstore of the UK chain WH Smith. The company has given zero indication when this ban will be overturned. How come you guys have never written an open letter condemning this actual boycott?

4. Why is this the issue you decided to organize a protest about? If you really cared about the plight of the average author, why have you never campaigned to raise royalty rates, or remove toothless reversion clauses, or awful non-compete clauses? Why have you been silent about the exploitation at (Penguin Random House-owned) Author Solutions?

5. You say you aren't in favor of higher prices. I find this incredibly disingenuous. It's clear  that Hachette's aim in these negotiations is to take back control of retail pricing and/or restrict Amazon's ability to discount e-books. In other words, if Hachette prevails, e-book prices will increase. That's what you are campaigning for.

6. Your letter also complains that Hachette books are no longer being discounted to the same levels as before. Are you aware that Hachette is seeking to take discounting power away from Amazon? In other words, Hachette books will be discounted *even less* if Amazon listens to you and caves to Hachette's demands. Do you see the cognitive dissonance here?

7. You make reference to two of Amazon's offers to compensate affected Hachette authors, depicting them as either disingenuous or unfair. However, you fail to reference Amazon's first offer. That offer was to estimate lost book sales and pay out the respective author royalties from a pool, the cost of which would be borne equally by Hachette and Amazon. (Note: this was exactly what was agreed between Amazon and Macmillan in 2010). Hachette also rejected this offer. I'd love to hear how this first offer was either unfair or disingenuous. I'd also love to hear your thoughts on the complete lack of counter-offers from Hachette to compensate affected authors. It seems to me like Hachette wants to keep its authors in the firing line to keep the pressure on Amazon.

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