Amazon Calls Baloney

July 10, 2014

Maybe it’s because I’ve been rereading classic Daniel Pinkwater novels (namely, The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death and The Snarkout Boys and the Baconburg Horror) but Amazon’s latest stunner of a response to stalled negotiations with Hachette reads like a young-adult comedy.

Here’s the setup. Amazon was pushing Hachette to cut prices on ebooks. When Hachette didn’t agree, Amazon liquidated ready inventory and made it more difficult to preorder Hachette titles. In other words, Amazon reduced Hachette to Least Favored Status as a vendor.

Then Hachette ginned up its PR engine, most hilariously by Stephen Colbert (3:20), to put some pressure on the world’s largest megastore/distributor. The Colbert Report segment also made for a good PR boost for Powell’s, Portland, Oregon’s famous indie bookstore.

And then, Amazon made this offer: While negotiations proceed, the e-tailer will not only restore normal shipping times and preorder status, but will also give 100% of the sale proceeds to Hachette authors. Not a dime to Amazon. Not a dime to the publisher. This is a game, it goes without saying, that Amazon can play longer than Hachette can.

Hachette offered a dignified rebuttal: “We believe that the best outcome for the writers we publish is a contract with Amazon that brings genuine marketing benefits and whose terms allow Hachette to continue to invest in writers, marketing, and innovation. We look forward to resolving this dispute soon and to the benefit of the writers who have trusted their books to us.” Amazon rebutted with dialogue right out of a Pinkwater novel: “We call baloney.”

But Amazon is indeed naming the elephant in the room: In the world of legacy publishing, the actual creator of the content is the least well compensated. It is unquestionably the case that publishers often do add great value to a work. But is that value nine times that of the work itself? Two times? Really?

On the one hand, there's a certain schadenfreude in seeing Hachette backed into a corner by 21st-century commerce. On the other, if Hachette hasn’t been all that cooperative with libraries, Amazon hasn’t been much better, and is arguably worse, at least in the world of ebooks. 

The reality of the emerging e-commerce environment is that authors are realizing that, like libraries, the game is often rigged against them. In the short run, Amazon might, and indeed does, offer a better deal for them.

In the long run? It’s a puzzle to stump Osgood Sigerson, the world’s greatest detective (see The Snarkout Boys). But are the Big Five and Amazon sure that treating libraries as the enemy is their best path forward? 

JAMES LARUE [jlarue[at]] writes, speaks, and consults about the future of libraries.