Updated: ‘Amazon Derangement Syndrome’ characterizes dispute between Amazon and Hachette
May 24, 2014 | 12:36 am
So, there’s a thing. Over on The Passive Voice, and some other blogs with similar points of view, they refer to it as “Amazon Derangement Syndrome (ADS),” for the way a certain class of people seem to like to run around like chickens with their heads cut off whenever the evil Amazon does another evil thing evilly.
Now, I’ll grant that ADS might not be the best term to go around using if you want to engage in serious discourse, given that the sort of people who toss it around are likely to be just as opinionated in favor of Amazon as the alleged ADS “sufferers” are against it. All the same, it’s kind of telling that there’s enough of this kind of sentiment going around that people have actually coined a cutesy term for it.
Regardless of your opinions on the matter, it really is interesting to watch people start going off on Amazon in regard to the contract dispute with Hachette. There was that Laura Miller Salon piece Paul mentioned. There’s an Orbit (Hachette) author who writes of “How Amazon Means Less Books For You” (instead of the grammatically correct “fewer books” because she thinks “less” sounds better). And Gizmodo’s Eric Limer contends that “When Amazon Plays Dirty, You Lose.”
It’s entirely understandable that some people, especially the authors getting caught in the middle of the dispute, would be inclined to blame Amazon rather than their publisher. After all, their publisher is the one who’s directly paying them money. And they want to think their publisher has a stake in the success of their books, since those are the way the publishers make their money, too.
But on the other hand, we have agents and authors contending that Hachette had been delaying shipments of books to Amazon as early as November, or as recently as April. The thing is that it takes two to tango. You need two hands to make a clap, you need two teams to hold a tug-of-war. If Amazon is throwing its weight around, then guess what? Hachette is throwing its weight around, too.
And that’s perfectly normal. That’s the way contract negotiations often work between two parties with an equal stake. (For example, between Barnes & Noble and Simon & Schuster last year, as noted by Hugh Howey. Think Amazon’s the only bookstore willing to play hardball?)
Both Amazon and Hachette are invested in getting Hachette books to customers, because that’s how they both make their money. And anything that either one of them does that keeps Hachette books from getting to customers hurts them both and they both know it. If Amazon loses Hachette books, it’s just lost a big chunk of what customers go there for, and if Hachette loses Amazon distribution it’s just lost 20% of its paper sales and at least 60% of its e-book sales. It just comes down to how much money each of them should make.
And when you’ve got two parties fighting over slices of the same pie, the only means either one has of putting pressure on the other is going to hurt them both. So what these negotiations come down to is a big old game of chicken, with each side seeing just how far the other is willing to let them go.
You don’t just get Amazon throwing its weight around to try to hurt Hachette, you get Hachette throwing its weight around to try to hurt Amazon, too. Either way, both Amazon and Hachette feel the pain from things either one of them does. And, of course, anything that hurts Hachette is, in turn, going to hurt the authors Hachette pays…whether it was Amazon who did it or Hachette.
Of course, publishers are the proverbial men who buy ink by the barrel that you’re not supposed to pick a fight with. The Big Five are all part of media conglomerates that have their own news divisions, in addition to having a whole bunch of authors (many of whom blog) in their pockets. So invariably, the narrative we end up seeing all over the place is that, if Amazon takes a hard line, Amazon is evil. If Hachette takes a hard line, and does something that will adversely affect its authors, like delaying shipments, it’s because the evil intractable Amazon made Hachette do it. Heads I win, tails you lose.
Now, I’m not saying Amazon is all sweetness and light. But I’m not so willing to let Hachette off the hook either. Hachette was one of the Big Six Publishers, and aside from their lack of concern helping keep many e-book prices artificially high during the pre-Kindle years, they colluded illegally to force Amazon to raise e-book prices. So they’ve lost a big chunk of “benefit of the doubt” as far as I’m concerned.
Any time you see a narrative that puts all the blame on Amazon without recognizing Hachette has to be pushing things from its side, too, you ought to be at least a little suspicious. You don’t get to blame Amazon for everything just because it’s big. Hachette is pretty darned big, too, but like all the major publishers, it just loves playing the victim card when it doesn’t get its way.
I wonder just how far both sides will be willing to go before one or the other caves? Would Hachette dare to pull all its books from Amazon unilaterally and let them stew? Would Amazon dare to remove the buy buttons again, as with Macmillan (rather than just removing pre-order buttons), and let Hachette stew?
I’m sure it won’t come to that. Sooner or later, one side or the other will cave, because that’s what these negotiations are for. And it’ll all be over until the next big publisher has to enter into contract negotiations with Amazon, a few months down the line. I suppose we might as well get used to seeing Amazon Derangement Syndrome writ large across the blogosphere, because something tells me it’s going to be with us for a while.
Update: This piece, and a couple of ADS-inspired blog postings (one of the ones I mention above, and another) are getting a lot of play on The Passive Voice today. In his writeup of this one, Passive Guy writes:
PG suggests that Hachette needs Amazon far more than Amazon needs Hachette.
Chris estimates that Amazon sells 60% of Hachette’s ebooks (the most profitable books any publisher sells). In the comments on another Amazon/Hachette post, someone calculated that Hachette sales represent less than two-tenths of one percent of Amazon’s business.
As PG mentioned in a much earlier post, higher prices for BigPub books and the lack of availability of BigPub books help the sales of indie authors more than anyone else.
It’s a good point. Apple’s e-book store was able to get by without Random House (the biggest Big Six publisher at the time, while Hachette is now one of the smallest) for a year. If necessary, Amazon might be able to do without Hachette for a while.
It would almost be amusing to see that happen, for Amazon to go right past removing buy buttons and simply delisting all Hachette books en masse from its store. “Oh, we’re not playing games, we’ve just decided we don’t want to carry your books anymore. Don’t let the screen door hit your bum on the way out.”
It’s almost too bad it probably won’t go that far.