When Douglas Preston Put His Vest On…

Douglas Preston, the author who penned an open letter to loyal readers calling on them to email Amazon C.E.O. Jeff Bezos and ask him to ‘change his mind’ and resolve their contractual dispute with Hachette Book Group without hurting authors, has spoken in a detailed FutureBook interview this week with Porter Anderson. Preston’s July letter to readers has garnered more than 900 signatories, including authors James Patterson, John Grisham, Lee Child, Anita Shreve, and Simon Winchester. You can read the full letter here.

When Douglas Preston put his vest on in July he hadn’t initially thought of ‘Authors United’ as a name for his protesting group of authors, but explained to Porter Anderson that it was a spur-of-the-moment choice when he was opening an account to place a forthcoming advert in the New York Times. Anderson, in his FutureBook piece, is right to point out that it raised some eyebrows in the wider author community at a time when authors seem anything but united in opinion on the Hachette/Amazon dispute. Indeed, it is probably fair to say that there are many issues authors don’t agree on as a whole, whether it’s about the value of traditional publishers, e-book pricing, or the paths to publishing in general.
It’s just an expression that we’re united in this one thing. There’s really a great diversity of opinion among the letter signers about such things as the right price of an ebook, how should publishing look at the future…what kinds of royalties authors should get…but the one united thing we all share is asking Amazon, as simple as this: just settle your differences with Hachette without hurting authors. That’s all.~ Douglas Preston – FutureBook Interview
I don’t doubt Preston’s well-meaning intentions and wish that authors should not be ‘hurting’ in this dispute, but any suggestion he is not taking sides is somewhat disingenuous, or worst if he really believes he and his signatories are being impartial, is shockingly naïve. Let’s face it, the Authors United mandate is for the most part directed at Amazon, not Hachette. It’s a little like a teacher breaking up a schoolyard scuffle between two boys and then telling one to ‘just settle your differences’ without knowing what exactly went on and just who is at fault or being intransigent.
I wrote earlier this month in The Dangers of Paying and Playing the Piper that I think there is a danger Preston is allowing himself (by fault or design) to be portrayed as a crusader for all authors when in fact he represents the commercial interests of a one group of authors. This dispute is certainly creating polarised views in the author community, with Howey and Konrath championing a different viewpoint, (and you can argue this petition and viewpoint is also aimed squarely at Hachette), but where I really take issue with the Authors United stance is involving its readers. It’s enough that the Authors United group have in effect invited themselves into a dispute they are not a party to (and Preston concedes this in the FutureBook interview), but to then invite readers into the ring is deeply unsavoury.
I think we have a fairly simple goal, which is asking Amazon not to drag authors into the fight. Amazon’s a big, powerful company and they have lots of negotiating tools at their disposal without actually hurting authors or inconveniencing their own customers.~ Douglas Preston – FutureBook Interview
So it’s not fair for Amazon to ‘drag authors into the fight’ but perfectly okay for Authors United to drag readers into it?
There is simply no situation where authors should call upon readers to ‘fight’ their perceived battles. The reality is that Authors United are using the leverage of their readers just as much as Amazon is accused of using Hachette authors as leverage.
We’re grateful to it [Amazon] for selling our books. We’ve been a partner to it, we’ve been supporting Amazon from the very beginning, from the time it was a start-up. And we’ve felt a little bit betrayed by this. I’m speaking to you now, not as an official spokesman for anybody. That’s how I felt personally, and it’s turned out a lot of other authors felt the same way.~ Douglas Preston – FutureBook Interview
Preston and any author with a traditional contract is NOT a partner to Amazon. The authors’ publishers are partners to Amazon. And who is this ‘we’ Preston speaks of above? Preston and his publisher? Maybe now Preston is shipping a serious amount of books for Hachette, they might just be seeking his opinion or counsel, but I doubt very much publishers seek the counsel of the vast majority of their authors during contract negotiations. To listen to Preston, he makes it sound like he is speaking from the position of a shareholder at some publishing corporation.
If Amazon were to say, ‘Okay, we’ll put the [pre-order] buttons back, we’ll go ahead and sell the books the way we did before—and we’re not going to do this again’—I think we’d close up shop.~ Douglas Preston – FutureBook Interview
Is that code for ‘Amazon, just roll over and say yes on all Hachette’s requests?’
And on e-book pricing and discounting, believed to be one of the issues at the heart of the Hachette/Amazon dispute:
People saying [for example] that we’re for higher ebook prices. Well that’s absurd. We haven’t made any comments about ebook prices. I think if you looked at our list of signers, you’d probably find that most of us were in favor of lower ebook prices and discounted books.~ Douglas Preston – FutureBook Interview
Admirable, Preston, but who’s taking the hit for those discounts?
But I’ll say this: there certainly should be room for both indie publishers and traditional publishers, for indie authors and traditional authors. I think we’re all in the same leaky boat, and we should be bailing together. I think we should be friends.~ Douglas Preston – FutureBook Interview
Again, while I agree with Preston’s sentiment, that all authors should work together and be supportive of each other, the truth is we sail under the same sky, are exposed to the same elements, but some authors didn’t choose to sail in the same leaky boat as others. Should they be bailing out the boat Preston decided was seaworthy? Or perhaps Preston, again, is really addressing just one particular group of authors?
“Books are different from toasters and wide-screen TV sets”
To readers, they may be different, but to retailers books are also products. We really need to get out of this mind-set of insisting books are not products when we talk to retailers—whether as publishers or author-publishers. Just the same way publishers need to stop seeing their industry as some highly specialised industry requiring unique treatment and kid-glove handling. Just the same way that authors and their representative groups need to understand that the tactics and PR spin being adopted by both sides in this dispute happens in many other industries.
Preston on Not Boycotting Amazon

We’re not calling for a boycott. I’m an Amazon Prime member and I’m still using the company. I guess I’d put it this way: you can be against a war and still be a patriotic citizen. I’m an Amazon customer, I’m just taking exception to this one thing they’re doing.~ Douglas Preston – FutureBook Interview

Spot on, Preston! No, Authors United are not calling for a boycott of Amazon, though, I’ve heard some authors aligning themselves with Authors United say they won’t buy books again from Amazon. However, the Authors United letter did suggest it was Amazon who was boycotting Hachette titles. Amazon actually was the one to suggest a boycott of a kind, by suggesting to customers that Amazon was not the only retail game in town, and customers could purchase Hachette titles from competitors.

Amazon has built its entire company on the basis of long-term strategies, bearing and offsetting losses, and I suspect it’s happy to play a difficult and protracted waiting game to see who blinks first. The trouble is Hachette and its authors cannot afford that kind of protracted dispute and it needs to accept that the contract of the future can’t always be the one that existed in the past, no matter how well it suited its needs up until now.

What also should not be forgotten here is that Hachette expects Amazon to continually deliver its books indefinitely to customers without an operable contract in place! The same rules apply to Hachette as any other publisher. No publisher or author has an entitlement to be listed or stocked by a retailer, least of all when that publisher cannot agree terms of pricing, discounts and supply.

For Douglas Preston, I hope one day we authors are all wearing the same vest with those two words: “Authors United,” but I’m not sure today is that day, and until we see a great deal more change in the industry, I’m not sure we will all be wearing the same vest any time soon.

[Yesterday Amazon used the Kindle discussion boards to elaborate on what it sees as its long term objectives with publishers.]

Mick Rooney – Publishing Consultant

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