This year Amazon became the number one retailer in the world, finally surpassing Walmart to become the premier global marketplace. As a sign of the modern times, Amazon reached this pinnacle without opening a single brick and mortar store. From the retailer who practically invented e-commerce, all transactions are online. And among those markets Amazon has experienced substantial growth on their way to global retail dominance in book selling.
Based on 2014 data, Amazon sells more than a third of newly published books. That’s the highest percentage of the market ever controlled by one retailer. With it, Amazon wields a level of power over the marketplace that none have ever known. A sense of the depths of that power began to be felt last year when contract negotiations broke down with Hachette, the fourth largest publisher in the US. Amazon insisted on a different royalty split where the retailer would keep 30% and return 70% for the publisher and author to share. In addition, the world’s largest e-book seller wanted to cap the price on e-books at $9.99. Both of these became sticking points in negotiations. When an agreement wasn’t reached, book by Hachette authors became harder to obtain on Amazon with delayed availability of new releases and longer shipping times. This amounted to what some authors called “bullying” tactics. It was in the midst of this fight, that big voices (pens) in the writing world began to take notice and take action.
Douglas Preston would rather you know him as the NY Times Bestselling author of Relic and Riptide rather than the role he is currently getting press for. Preston is the spokesperson for Authors United, a group of nearly 900 authors who are taking a stand against Amazon’s price setting practices.
As Preston said to NY Times earlier this year, “…there isn’t a single example in American history where the concentration of power in one company has in the long run benefited consumers.”
While Preston may be the spokesperson, he’s hardly the only big name author in the group. Stephen King, James Patterson, Donna Tartt, Paul Auster, Lee Child, Clive Cussler, and Jennifer Egan are among those noted writers who have joined the cause. Lending their names to Authors United, these big hitters in the literary world hoped to bring public pressure to the decision makers at Amazon.
It’s been a year now since Authors United first took a stand against Amazon calling on CEO Jeff Bezos and the rest of Amazon’s Board of Directors to reconsider the company posture and position. They implored the Board for action citing “Amazon’s tactics have caused us profound anguish and outrage.” Now the fight has grown to include The American Booksellers Association, The Authors Guild, and The Association of Author’s Representatives and has escalated to a formal call for Justice Department intervention. In their letter to the Attorney General, the groups question the amount of control Amazon has over the marketplace and its impact on diversity and creativity.
You can hardly blame the Authors from seeking reprieve from the Justice Department. In fact, in many ways they’re turning the tables on Amazon. Five years ago, Amazon was the one seeking assistance from Washington when they quietly asked the Justice Department to investigate leading publishers. The results ended up strengthening Amazon’s position and weakening the major publishing houses.
So after a year, the argument has evolved beyond royalties and market control. Authors United is now raising concerns about the impact Amazon is having on the creative community. In short, is the dominance and influence enjoyed by Amazon limiting the depths of artistic expression in the literary world? Preston and company says yes and has made this a cornerstone of their complaint to the Justice Department. However, there is a growing segment of the writing community that would likely disagree.
A third party to this fight are those who prosper outside of traditional publishing. Self-publishing has boomed, in no small part, because of the efforts of Amazon. Their foray in e-books and the introduction of Kindle Publishing has made the possibility of publication both accessible and affordable for nearly any writer. So perhaps to no surprise, some in this group are not necessarily in step with their more accomplished colleagues.
Hugh Howey, a leading self-published author who is best known for his science fiction series Wool, is vocal proponent for Amazon and lower e-book prices. “Ebooks and self-publishing made so much possible, literally overnight. With the launch of Kindle Direct Publishing, anyone with a story and a keyboard could place their work right alongside Grisham’s and Rowling’s. Walls came smashing down,” wrote Howey in a September 15, 2015 on his blog.
Howey may not yet have a pen as big as the biggest names in Authors United, but he is part of a growing group of new authors who have skipped the route of traditional publishers and gone directly to the retailers. While this group is still small, they are breaking some important new ground.
Recently, #1 NY Times Bestselling author Jamie McGuire announced that she would have a new title available in stores at select Walmart locations. This is significant since McGuire has been using the indie (self-publishing) approach for her last ten books. She’s not changed her position; the marketplace is changing for her. While this may only be one victory for one author, it could be a watershed event that starts to unravel the argument of Preston and his group.
It is hard to ignore the muscles Amazon has been flexing in the publishing world over the past few years. It’s also equally hard to coincide the negative impact their growth has had on traditional publishing houses. In a nutshell, as Amazon continues to become the single biggest player in publishing history, the influence of big publishing houses declines relatively.
This dichotomy hurts the big publishers and the established authors. The reaction of Preston and his peers is completely justifiable. But for future authors, it’s hard to say how Authors United and co. would be paving a better path. Instead, they appear as ardent defenders of the publishing status quo, which has been a selective system where most manuscripts never reach an audience. Is this a bad thing?
That all depends on how much weight you put into the “art” of literature. The more access to broad publishing platforms that exists (through Amazon, BookBaby, etc.) the overall quality of literature is likely to degrade. It’s logical that not everyone is going to be a Faulkner, a Poe, a Grisham, or a Preston. Where big publishing houses have traditionally been the gatekeepers, Amazon has led a great democratization to the marketplace. For proponents of the smaller and independent presses, it’s hard to be against that. Opening up the marketplace in the way that Amazon has to self-publishing can be seen as advantageous to emerging writers, yet a monopoly in any industry never yields the best results. No matter who controls the industry, diversity is the most important characteristic. Without an environment that fosters originality literature cannot and will not thrive.
wrestling his muse, Jeffrey is the father of four wonderful kids. Follow him on Twitter @Brick_says.
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- Authors and Booksellers Take on the Behemoth that is Amazon - September 30, 2015