When Douglas Preston Put His Vest On | End The Sanctions

Over the weekend, Authors United published its latest letter in the media sideshow that seems to be accompanying the on-going and protracted negotiations between Amazon and big-five publisher Hachette. While Preston’s letter(s)—on behalf of more than a thousand Hachette and non-Hachette authors— become increasingly emotive, surreal and downright laughable and embarrassing, New York Times and Authors United cheerleader David Streitfeld seems destined to take mainstream media bias just as far as any journalist can take it. Indeed, hybrid author Hugh Howey has described Streitfeld’s latest outbursts as ‘dangerous and disingenuous.’

Up until August, I had some sympathy for Preston and the band of authors he so wilfully wants to represent. I’ve respect for anyone who sticks their head above the parapet in an effort to represent fellow authors, even if I don’t agree with their viewpoint. Only the most partisan voice will refuse to accept some authors are hurting over this, and many of them are about a million miles away from the position and success Preston enjoys.

But that sympathy ended entirely with this latest letter, below. While Preston claims Amazon are using authors as pawns and leverage in their negotiations with Hachette, Preston, too, has allowed himself to become infantry fodder in this part publisher-driven and part media-driven War on Amazon. This is a battlefield Preston invited himself to, and beyond bestselling success and deep enough pockets to contribute to a $104,000 vanity publishing ad in the New York Times a few weeks ago, he is beginning to look woefully ill-equipped and ill-informed for the long-haul battle ahead. And I’m sure Hachette are perfectly happy to allow that to continue. 

This letter has been sent to all Amazon directors in a plea to resolve Amazon’s dispute with Hachette. (My bold and comments in red)

Dear [name],
We are writing to you in your capacity as a director of Amazon.com, Inc. As we all know, Amazon is involved in contract negotiations with several media and publishing companies, including Hachette. About six months ago, to enhance its bargaining position, Amazon began sanctioning Hachette authors’ books. These sanctions included refusing preorders, delaying shipping, reducing discounting, and using pop-up windows to cover authors’ pages and redirect buyers to non-Hachette books. [More war terminology. I think Douglas has been watching too much CNN and FOX on TV with this grand talk of (economic or trade?) sanctions. What appears to be completely forgotten in all this is that Hachette’s formal agreement with Amazon ended months ago! Amazon is no longer under any contractual obligation to even hold Hachette book stocks, let alone sell them. And, yet, with some restrictions, they continue to sell Hachette books.] 
These sanctions have driven down Hachette authors’ sales at Amazon.com by at least 50 percent and in some cases as much as 90 percent. These sales drops are occurring across the board: in hardcovers, paperbacks, and e-books. Because of Amazon’s immense market share and its proprietary Kindle platform, other retailers have not made up the difference. Several thousand Hachette authors have watched their readership decline, or, in the case of new authors, have seen their books sink out of sight without finding an adequate readership. These men and women are deeply concerned about what this means for their future careers. [Pray tell, Douglas, just how exactly are these thousands of authors able to measure their ‘readership’ directly in relationship to sales? Does that then mean any author without a book recently published or available for sale on Amazon is in terminal readership decline? Preston has previously claimed that he has lost up to 50% in sales (and he reports some authors claiming as much as 90%). Are traditional publishers now supplying authors directly with monthly sales data? I must have missed that development! Hold on there. Someone isn’t doing the math right here. If Amazon are responsible for half your book sales, and you claim a higher percentage of lost sales, then guess what? Those extra lost sales have nothing to do with Amazon! If Preston’s lost of sales are above his sales share on Amazon, then he might want to examine exactly who or what is really damaging his sales. Maybe folks aren’t buying your books for other reasons, Douglas!]
We urge you to review our names at the bottom of this letter. No group of authors as diverse or prominent as this has ever come together before in support of a single cause. We are literary novelists, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists, and poets; thriller writers and debut and midlist authors. We are science fiction and travel writers; historians and newspaper reporters; textbook authors and biographers and mystery writers. We have written many of your children’s favorite stories. Collectively, we have sold more than a billion books. Amazon’s tactics have caused us profound anguish and outrage. [For a moment I thought Douglas was suggesting Amazon had given birth to children! I’ve no idea what the children of Amazon directors are reading, and I don’t suppose Douglas does either. But it’s a good heartstrings puller.]
Russell Grandinetti of Amazon has stated that the company was “forced to take this step because Hachette refused to come to the table.” He has also claimed that “authors are the only leverage we have.” As one of the world’s largest corporations, Amazon was not “forced” to do anything. This is an obvious fact. We all have choices. Amazon chose to involve 2,500 Hachette authors and their books. It could end these sanctions tomorrow while continuing to negotiate. Amazon is undermining the ability of authors to support their families, pay their mortgages, and provide for their kids’ college educations. We’d like to emphasize that most of us are not Hachette authors, and our concern is founded on principle, rather than self-interest. [Douglas taking Grandinetti’s statement a little out of the context. This was because Hachette would not come to the table and when the contract expired and the leverage did not come all at once, but in stages. Real brute leverage would have been to remind Hachette that it was no longer under contract and all titles were being immediately delisted. Hachette were free to take their business elsewhere. Amazon is not under any contract with Hachette authors, and it is certainly not responsible for paying the mortgages of those authors, nor ensuring their kids’ college education. Indeed, we do all have choices. And it was the signatories of Authors United to invite themselves to a fight that was never theirs to fight.]    
We find it hard to believe that all members of the Amazon board approve of these actions. We would like to ask you a question: Do you as an Amazon director approve of this policy of sanctioning books? [Emotive and misleading language. Amazon is not sanctioning books.]
Efforts to impede or block the sale of books have a long and ugly history. Would you, personally, want to be associated with this? We, the undersigned, feel strongly that such actions have no place in a common commercial dispute. Amazon has other negotiating tools at its disposal; it does not need to inflict harm on some of the very authors who helped it become one of the largest retailers in the world. [Amazon is not standing in the way of the sale of Hachette books. There is no ‘blockade’. Readers can buy Hachette titles in just about any retail outlet that sells books. Hardball tactics, standoffs, restrictions on terms are part of all commercial negotiations in any industry. The book industry is no different. Yes, Amazon has got other negotiating tools—one is telling Hachette that without a contract, they know where the door is. They’ve yet to use that one.]
Our position has been consistent. We have made a great effort not to take sides. We are not against Amazon. We appreciate that Amazon sells half the books in the United States. But Amazon has repeatedly tried to dismiss us as “rich” bestselling authors who are advocating higher ebook prices—a false and unfair characterization, as most of us are in fact midlist authors struggling to make a living. And we have not made any statements whatsoever on book pricing. Our point is simple: we believe it is unacceptable for Amazon to impede or block the sale of any books as a negotiating tactic. [I don’t see Authors United lobbying and writing letters to Hachette directors to get back in there and negotiate. Taking out a full-page advertisement in the New York Times at a cost of $104,000 is the single greatest act of vanity publishing I have every witnessed. You have used mainstream print and TV networks at every opportunity to misrepresent the realities of a commercial negotiation you are not fully privy to and continue to paint Amazon as the bogeyman.] 
Amazon has every right to refuse to sell consumer goods in response to a pricing disagreement with a wholesaler. We all appreciate discounted razor blades and cheaper shoes. But books are not consumer goods. Books cannot be written more cheaply, nor can authors be outsourced to China. Books are not toasters or televisions. Each book is the unique, quirky creation of a lonely, intense, and often expensive struggle on the part of a single individual, a person whose living depends on his or her book finding readers. This is the process Amazon is obstructing. [Douglas, this is possibly the idiotic crescendo of your entire letter. Frankly, you may be doing well if most of the Amazon directors even bother reading beyond the utter whimsical nonsense in this paragraph. Go tell struggling independent retailers and authors who cannot afford to write full-time that books are not consumer goods. Better still, Douglas, why not start to give all your books away for free? Every writer might be unique, but be assured, a look at the bookshelves of every store will tell you that many books are anything but unique. You might want to tell these Chinese writers that they aren’t up to scratch in your USA-centric view of the literary world. Maybe they should give up working as writers and go and build toasters and TVs? And you wonder why Authors United are depicted by some as privileged and rich authors?] 
There has been much talk on the Internet about how traditional publishers like Hachette are “dinosaurs” defending a moribund business model. There have been claims that Amazon is leading the way to a new publishing paradigm, one that pays authors higher royalties, allows anyone to publish, and cuts out the elitist gatekeepers. We agree that Amazon has spurred important innovations in publishing, including a wonderful self-publishing model that has given many new writers a voice. [Like you said above, Douglas… “We all have choices.”] 
But what these commentators and Amazon itself may not realize is that traditional publishing houses perform a vital role in our society. Publishers provide venture capital for ideas. They advance money to authors, giving them the time and freedom to write their books. This system is especially important for nonfiction writers, who often must travel for research. Thousands of times every year, publishers take a chance on unknown authors and advance them money solely on the basis of an idea. By assuming the risk, publishers expect—and receive—a financial return. What will Amazon replace this process with? How, in the Amazon model, will a young author get funding to pursue a promising idea? And what about the role of editors, copy editors, and other publishing staff who ensure that what ultimately ends up on the shelf is both worthy and accurate? [Talk of traditional publishing houses’ role in society is getting pretty romantic and sanctimonious. Many writers write their books without an advance, and you create your own freedom. Publishers don’t award it to authors. I think you will find those afforded an advance for a book based on an idea alone are pretty much in the minority. Amazon is primarily a retailer. I didn’t know the publishing industry had tasked Amazon replacing the publishing process. Amazon publishing is simply one model of publishing, not a replacement! Any author or publisher is free to outsource the services of publishing professionals.]  
We are confident that you, as an Amazon board member, prize books and freedom of expression as much as we do. Since its founding, Amazon has been a highly regarded and progressive brand. But if this is how Amazon continues to treat the literary community, how long will the company’s fine reputation last? We appeal to you, with hope and goodwill, to exercise your governance and put an end to the sanctioning of books, which are the very foundation of our culture and democracy. [Knee-deep in sanctimonious platitudes again, Douglas. You must be starting to believe Amazon is owned by the Russians and society is bordering on complete collapse. I think you will find that books play their part in culture and democracy, but there’s a tad more to it than that!] 
[Each one of us listed below has read, approved, and signed this letter]

Mick Rooney – Publishing Consultant

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