Amazon vs. Hachette: Theories and opinions
May 14, 2014 | 5:30 pm
So, Amazon vs. Hachette. There’s a thing. One multibillion dollar company versus another in a contract negotiation, Amazon delaying availability of Hachette books, authors getting caught in the middle, and we’re supposed to root for the publisher because Amazon is, of course, evil. Right.
Publishers Weekly has a pretty informative and more or less neutral article looking at the matter and putting it in perspective of the publishers’ antitrust settlement and subsequent renegotiation windows. Hachette will be the first of the publishers to get to renegotiate its contract with Apple, in October 2015, and undoubtedly Amazon wants to lock in terms at least as favorable as Apple is likely to get. An agent puts into words the ambivalence with which the publishing industry regards Amazon:
Summarizing the feelings of many book publishing professionals, this agent added: "We as an industry are in the odd position of pushing Amazon away with one hand and hugging it closer with the other. We need them…but we need them to be reasonable.”
Good luck with that. Amazon is famous for its unyielding approach to negotiation, to the point where John Sargent of Macmillan said he was “off to Seattle to get my ass kicked” when he went to break the agency pricing news to them. And I get the feeling that, in the end, Hachette may need Amazon more than Amazon needs Hachette. It will be interesting to see where it goes.
The Publishers Weekly piece, and some articles I’ve seen in other places such as marketwatch site Seeking Alpha, put this in the context of Amazon finally starting to feel shareholder pressure to show a real profit, and looking at cutting expenses, raising fees (such as the recent Prime price hike), and squeezing more money out of publishers to be able to do that.
Meanwhile, Hugh Howey, he of the Author Earning statistics, noted that this particular squabble is getting a lot more press than one that affected him last year, when Barnes & Noble had a feud with Simon & Schuster over co-op money, the kickback that publishers pay bookstores to get their books prime placement. (Funny how pay-for-play was outlawed for radio stations but there’s no problem having it in bookstores, isn’t it?) Thanks to that dispute, when he was on book tour for Wool, “you couldn’t find the title in 99% of Barnes & Noble stores.”
What I find fascinating is the increased coverage this time around. The NYT and Publishers Weekly have published scathing reports accusing Amazon of being a bully. I would have loved some of that directed at B&N last year. You see, Barnes & Noble was holding authors and readers hostage in order to wring more cash out of publishers, because they are having a hard time making that money by actually selling books. They got a pass for this. What is Amazon up to?
Howey feels this can be explained by the NYT and Publishers Weekly both being influenced by their old-media ties. I suspect that publishers and their media allies might also be willing to cut B&N some slack because they’re a fellow enemy of Amazon. Whereas when Amazon does something, it’s because they’re flexing their monopoly muscle, B&N has to do whatever it can to survive and so gets a pass.