The continuing negotiations between Amazon and Hachette show how much heat can be generated from so little information. The known facts are these: Amazon has downgraded some Hachette Book Group USA titles as the duo tussle over new terms agreements. The assumption is that Hachette’s revised agency contract, as dictated to by the Department of Justice, and put in place two years ago, is now up for re-negotiation. The further assumption is that once the Hachette contract has been finalised, Amazon will turn it attention to the remaining four big publishers, with Penguin Random House the likely last stop on this troubling parade.
Then there are the known unknowns. Crucially, we do not know the details of the terms under negotiation, or even if the agency model is under-threat. The assumption is that Michael Pietsch, is leading the negotiations, although other names have been mentioned to me. The further assumption is that the sticking point is over trade discounts, although my understanding is that no contract discussion with Amazon is ever as simple as the amount of discount on the table. It seems likely that Amazon will be most concerned about how it can continue to beat its competitors over price, but others view it as an attempt by the Seattle Giant to push up its margins, rather than lower prices for customers.
My colleague Gayle Feldman wrote in her despatches from Book Expo America, that whatever happens, ‘will change publishing’. That much seems certain. The irony of the Department of Justice investigation into alleged publishing collusion was that we all had visibility of the agency-lite contracts, and a vague understanding about what the regulators thought was permissible. Whatever happens next, this visibility is now being eroded. Beyond whether Hachette and Amazon agree a new agency-type contract, the terms of that deal most likely will not be known in the future. Publishers will be negotiating blind.
Punditry thrives in this mist, however. The details might be elusive, but the finger can still be pointed, and often in many directions at the same time. Thus columnist and writer Michael Wollf, in a piece for USA Today, wrote that he could not back either side in the argument: “So, broadly, the fight is between, on the one hand, the incompetents, craven panderers and mid-level corporate bureaucrats in the book business and, on the other, the authoritarian creepos at Amazon. More specifically, the fight is about better and lesser businesses' acumen and strategies.” For Wollf, publishers got it wrong when they shut their ‘branded retail outlets’, and closed their book clubs. Publishers now have “no real relationship with, or influence over, its customer”.
Writer Chuck Windig is similarly conflicted: “So, while it’s really, really easy to fall prey to the narrative of Good versus Evil (with various Side-Takers and Zealots claiming different sides as good and different sides as evil), I think it’s vital to resist such lazy categorization. I’ve seen what indie authors call Amazon Derangement Syndrome, which is when folks in the traditional system decry anything Amazon does as being some kind of Lovecraftian Evil — any change in the way they do business is just them building a throne out of the bones of innocent children. But I’ve seen the opposite, too — where indie authors cannot abide criticism of Amazon, as if Amazon is like, a pal they hang out with at a bar somewhere . . .”
Others have been more secure in taking sides. In the Sunday Times, writer Amanda Foreman, likened Amazon to the church. “One of the greatest monopolies in history was the medieval Catholic Church. Its religious and temporal power was absolute until confronted by an even more potent rival: the printed book. Today, print is once more at the centre of a cultural revolution. Only this time it is not the challenger to a global monopoly but its most successful weapon. Amazon, founded and controlled by Jeff Bezos, used the humble book to leverage itself into becoming the world’s largest online retailer . . .” And she added: “We need to stand alongside our fellow authors at Hachette and Bonnier. Their fate is our fate; we can help them win or watch them prepare the way for the destruction of all of us.”
Meanwhile, indie writers David Gaughran, and Hugh Howey, have gone out of their way to make the case for Amazon. Gaughran believing that Hachette is orchestrating a “very smart PR campaign” against Amazon. That Wollf believes publishers are inept, and Gaughran that they are master propagandists, tell us much about what people do not know.
Feldman wrote during BEA that “the strong feeling was that Hachette must stand its ground, until the next house does, and the next, and the next, and the next”. But the question that haunts me is, how will we know on what kind of ground the protagonists are standing by the end? As today’s news about the DOJ shining its skewed spotlight back on big publishing shows, publishers are reluctant to talk even in general terms about their business arrangements, and gossip is now tantamount to a criminal offence.
The code of silence Amazon has long demanded over anyone with whom it does business, has now been ratified by the DOJ.
The troubling irony is that in this content war between two giant book companies, words themselves have become dangerous. And while the pundit in me is happy to fish in these blackened depths, the journalist regrets that this battle over publishing’s future is being conducted in the murk.
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