Page against the machine: Fight over future of books
A fight over the future of books has turned nasty with online retailer Amazon pulling bestsellers from its site
It's a clash of corporate titans - the ultimate new media versus old media smackdown. In one corner is a publishing powerhouse which counts JK Rowling and David Foster Wallace among its heavyweight names. In the other a behemoth of the tech sector, led by perhaps the most ruthless entrepreneur of his generation. Whichever way the fight goes, bloody noses and crushed egos seem inevitable.
At one level the dust-up between Hachette and Amazon, which has seen the online retailer withdraw some of the publisher's bestselling writers from its website, is straightforward. Amazon wants Hachette to agree a standard $9.99 price for new releases in the ebook format in the United States; Hachette thinks $14.99 a fairer figure (while many titles are already sold at $9.99 on Amazon's US store, the discount is straight out of Amazon's bottom line - the company believes publishers such as Hachette should pitch in).
But while the economics are straightforward the row is, in many respects, existential. A tussle over the soul of publishing that asks us all - retailers, authors, readers - to consider what sort of enterprise the books world is properly regarded as. Hachette argues books aren't merely another commodity to be piled high and flogged cheaply. Amazon retorts this isn't for publishers to decide -if that the public wants cheaper books, corporations such as Hachette must be ready to accede.
The squabble, which flared last month, has lately turned nasty, as authors pitch in on both sides. A-list writers such as Stephen King and Booker-nominated Joshua Ferris are against Amazon, aghast at what they perceive as the strong-arm strategy of pulling selected Hachette titles and its wider campaign to push down prices.
However, they are opposed by a new generation of self-published authors for whom Amazon has proved a godsend, allowing them to bypass established imprints to pitch their works directly to the reader, often at low prices (typically in the $1.99 to $4.99 range). Far from a barbarian at the gate, in Amazon boss Jeff Bezos they see a liberator enabling new writers reach a readership previously zealously patrolled by gatekeepers such as Hachette.
One of Amazon's loudest critics is Douglas Preston, ex-New Yorker writer, co-author of the bestselling Agent Pendergast crime series and organiser of a petition on behalf of some 900 authors - including Stephen King and John Grisham - protesting Amazon's allegedly iron-fisted negotiation tactics. "Amazon has been throwing its weight around for quite some time in a bullying fashion and I think authors are fed up," he said.
Taking issue with these sentiments, a group of self-published writers organised a counter petition. "Amazon pays writers nearly six times what publishers pay us," it reads. "Amazon allows us to retain ownership of our works. Amazon provides us the freedom to express ourselves in more creative ways, adding to the diversity of literature."
Part of a multi-billion dollar global conglomerate, Hachette is used to having its way. Nonetheless, in Bezos it has a formidable opponent. The former Wall Street analyst has consistently proved himself the biggest bruiser in the tech industry, with little patience for the hippy- dippyisms of tech rivals such as Google and Facebook.
"You got to earn your keep in this world," was his response to claims he was putting bookstores out of business. "When you invent something new, if customers come to the party, it's disruptive to the old way…you know, people can complain about that, but complaining is not a strategy... Amazon is not happening to bookselling - the future is happening to bookselling."
Such comments receive short shrift from many establish writers who perceive Bezos as a boor with little understanding of the subtleties of publishing.
"Readers have come to expect cheaper e-book prices as a matter of course. They don't want to pay more than €1.99 for a book that has taken the author at least a year to write, but they will happily pay €3 for their morning latte. So prices keep going down as more and more publishers try to compete by undercutting one another," says Irish author Caroline Finnerty.
"I believe affordable e-books can only be a good thing for authors and readers alike," counters author Anya Wylde. "There is no reason for an e-book, which does not have any distribution costs and can't be resold, to be priced as high as the hard copy version. The only people this benefits are the publishers who are trying to hold on to their traditional way of doing business."
Who should readers root for? Amazon says a $9.99 price for new ebooks benefits everyone - sales would rise so that, in addition to a better deal for customers, authors could expect higher royalties and publishers swollen profits. Conversely, Hachette sees itself as taking an important stand against what many in publishing regard as a push by Amazon to monopolize the market - its hardline position implicitly asks us to consider if we want to live in a world where Jeff Bezos has exclusive say over what we read and how much we pay for the privilege.
"As a self-published author, I have a lot to thank Amazon for," says Irish author Catherine Howard. "They've made it not only possible but easy for writers like me to publish books that would not otherwise have found a hope. My first travel memoir, for example, Mousetrapped, was met time and again with a 'no market for this' rejection."
That said, Howard understands why many authors fear the influence of Amazon. "A monopoly is never good… and I fear for a situation where one person or company gets to dictate the rules. Right now, Amazon is offering self-published authors a 70pc royalty share if they price their ebooks between $2.99 and $9.99. But if you read their terms and conditions carefully you see they are free to change this at any time…they can do whatever they want if there's no one to compete.
"I absolutely reject the idea that lower ebook prices are harmful to authors," adds prolific Irish ebook author David Gaughran, a signatory to the anti-Hachette petition. "Lower prices expand the market…bestselling authors don't want the status quo to change because it has served them very well. But since the explosion in popularity of ebooks, more writers are earning a living from selling books than ever before.
"This is something all authors should be celebrating, but perhaps those at the top table are worried about losing their seat."
Amazon in numbers
Amazon is the world's most powerful online retailer. Here are some key facts and figures.
1) It was almost called Cadabra
In 1994 Jeff Bezos (right) registered his internet start-up as Cadabra (from Abracadabra). However, he changed it to Amazon by the time of its launch after his lawyer misheard the word as 'cadaver'. He also flirted with Makeitso.com, after Captain Picard's catchphrase from Star Trek.
2) It earns hundreds of thousands every minute
When Amazon's website went down just for the period of for 50 minutes in 2012, sales lost were estimated at $5.7 million.
3) Call to complain and the boss might answer
So that he stays attuned to the public's demands, every year Bezos puts in two hours manning the customer service desk.
4) It's bigger than half the economies in the world
Amazon earns $34 billion annually - twice the GDP of Hondura (though a long way off Ireland's circa $210 billion)
5) It isn't touchy-feely
Where other tech companies lavish workers with fusball tables and soda, Amazon expects them to pitch in for the cost of parking.