The Amazon Hachette War: For Authors, It's Personal Now

The ongoing war between Amazon.com and Hachette just got a lot more intense. The online retailer and the book publisher have been battling over new contract terms under which Amazon will sell Hachette titles. Each side gives a different account of what has happened. Amazon says Hachette won't come to the table and that its offers were fair, and Hachette says it has made fair offers which Amazon won't accept.

In the meantime, sales of Hachette authors' books are being delayed on Amazon.com. This has upset Hachette authors. So Tuesday, Amazon made an offer to protect authors during negotiations. It says if Hachette will agree, Amazon will pay 100% of the purchase price of every book directly to the Hachette authors. That means Amazon and Hachette have to forego any profit from the sale of Hachette books until the two parties reach a deal. Amazon says it can implement the deal within 72 hours of Hachette's agreement.

Hachette immediately rejected the offer saying it would be like committing suicide. And then things got really nasty. Amazon (who has never before done anything remotely like this) fired back saying, "We call baloney. Hachette is part of a $10 billion global conglomerate. It wouldn't be 'suicide.' They can afford it." Amazon accused Hachette of just revealing that their entire plan is to keep their authors caught in the middle, so that Hachette can use the authors as leverage to get a better deal.

Bestselling author Douglas Preston told The Washington Post in no uncertain terms that he does not approve of the offer saying, "They're asking us authors to load Amazon's guns for them." Preston said that he would personally make millions of dollars if the plan is implemented, but that he wouldn't feel right taking what he calls "blood money." He also feels loyal to Hachette saying, "I would never turn around and do something like that to them."

Amazon blasted back at Preston in a statement saying, "Easy for him to say. He's rich and already successful. He can opt out of the offer for himself if he wants, but he shouldn't stand in the way of debut and midlist authors benefiting from the offer."

Other bestelling authors agree with Preston. But not all authors do. A coalition of authors who self publish with Amazon say have rallied behind Amazon saying that the company keeps its promises, pays promptly and does care about authors. Midlist and authors with smaller sales have noted that it's really easy for a bunch of multi-millionaire authors to turn down huge royalties. But most authors have bills to pay and could really use the cash while the two behemoths negotiate.

Novelist and attorney Scott Turow, who is the former president of the Author's Guild, said it would be shortsighted for authors to take the deal, because it would make Hachette cave in to Amazon on terms and that the 100% royalty would not last forever. But he did apportion some of the blame on book publishers saying that "to to some extent the publishers have brought this on themselves by not sharing appropriately with authors. There are much fatter profits on ebooks than on physical ones and that has drawn Amazon like bees to the honey."

Today Richard Russo, novelist and co-Vice President of the Authors Guild, issued an open letter in which he said the Guild is not taking Amazon's or Hachette's side in the dispute. He noted that Amazon provides a huge platform for authors to sell their works and for that the Guild is grateful. But he calls Amazon's offer "highly disingenuous," because it is short-term and that the Guild wants good ebook terms for all its authors, for the foreseeable future. As for Hachette, he says that although authors who publish in the traditional manner do love their publishers it is true that "they've not treated us fairly with regard to ebook revenues, and they know it. That needs to change."

So where does all this leave authors? In limbo. Hachette turned down Amazon's offer, so the 100% royalty payment is not happening regardless of what its authors think. Hachette relies on Amazon to sell its titles. According to The New York Times, 60% of Hachette's sales come from Amazon.com. The reality is that they're going to have to cut a deal sooner or later.

Posted on July 11, 2014

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