Letter from Richard Russo on the Amazon-Hachette Dispute

We want to share with you an open letter on the Amazon-Hachette, written by Richard Russo, novelist and co-Vice President of the Authors Guild.

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The primary mission of the Authors Guild has always been the defense of the writing life. While it may be true that there are new opportunities and platforms for writers in the digital age, only the willfully blind refuse to acknowledge that authorship is imperiled on many fronts. True, not all writers are equally impacted. Some authors still make fortunes through traditional publishing, and genre writers (both traditionally published and independently published) appear to be doing better than writers of nonfiction and “literary” mid-list fiction. (The Guild has members in all of these categories.) But there’s evidence, both statistical and anecdotal, that as a species we are significantly endangered. In the UK, for instance, the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society reports that authors’ incomes have fallen 29 percent since 2005, a decline they deem “shocking.” If a similar study were done in the U.S., the results would be, we believe, all too similar.

On Tuesday, Amazon made an offer to Hachette Book Group that would “take authors out of the middle” of their ongoing dispute by offering Hachette authors windfall royalties on e-books until the dispute between the companies is resolved. While Amazon claims to be concerned about the fate of mid-list and debut authors, we believe their offer—the majority of which Hachette would essentially fund—is highly disingenuous. For one thing, it’s impossible to remove authors from the middle of the dispute. We write the books they’re fighting over. And because it is the writing life itself we seek to defend, we’re not interested in a short-term windfall to some of the writers we represent. What we care about is a healthy ecosystem where all writers, both traditionally and independently published, can thrive. We believe that ecosystem should be as diverse as possible, containing traditional big publishers, smaller publishers, Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble and independent bookstores, as well as both e-books and print books. We believe that such an ecosystem cannot exist while entities within it are committed to the eradication of other entities.

Over the years the Guild has often opposed Amazon’s more ruthless tactics, not because we’re anti-Amazon but because we believe the company has stepped over the line and threatened the publishing ecosystem in ways that jeopardize both our livelihoods and the future of authorship itself. There’s no need to rehash our disagreements here. But it is worth stating that we are not anti-Amazon, or anti-e-book, or anti-indie-publishing. Amazon invented a platform for selling e-books that enriches the very ecosystem we believe in, and for which we are grateful. If indie authors are making a living using that platform, bravo. Nor are we taking Hachette’s side in the present dispute. Those of us who publish traditionally may love our publishers, but the truth is, they’ve not treated us fairly with regard to e-book revenues, and they know it. That needs to change. If we sometimes appear to take their side against Amazon, it’s because we’re in the same business: the book business. It may be true that some of our publishers are owned by corporations that, like Amazon, sell a lot more than books, but those larger corporations seem to understand that books are special, indeed integral to the culture in a way that garden tools and diapers and flat-screen TVs are not. To our knowledge, Amazon has never clearly and unequivocally stated (as traditional publishers have) that books are different and special, that they can’t be treated like the other commodities they sell. This doesn’t strike us as an oversight. If we’re wrong, Mr. Bezos, now would be a good time to correct us. First say it, then act like you believe it. We’d love to be your partners.

Comments: more
  • Barbara Rogan

    Amazon and Hachette are reportedly sparring over division of income from ebooks. There’s a third party with rights to a piece of that income: writers. Why is the Author’s Guild watching this play out from afar? In the end, Amazon and Hachette will reach a deal of some sort. But who’s going to protect and expand writers’ share of this income from our own books?

  • SpringfieldMH

    Keeping in mind that the actual negotiations are supposed to be under non-disclosure, which means that 99.9% of the folks claiming to be “reporting” and “caring” don’t in fact have much of any idea as to what is going on…. Nor do I. But since everyone feels justified in commenting anyway, I’ll join in…

    Apparently, Amazon’s offer, while floated to authors, was formally made to Hachette, not to authors. Acceptance and implementation would have required Hachette acceptance and involvement. So, nothing illegal. But you can bet it got authors’ attention. As did Amazon’s previous offer to do a 50/50 funding of a pool to assist authors during these negotiations. As did Hachette saying no, twice.

    Hachette can do PR (“evil Amazon is starving our writers”) and leaks to the NYT, but Amazon can’t do PR? So much for unethical.

    Technically, not sure that Amazon is a publisher of most of the indie/self-pub e-books and print on demand paper books sold through their site, but rather a retailer. Indie/self pub authors using Amazon’s services are at least as likely to qualify as the actual publishers. There’s debate as to whether the money indie/self-pub authors receive from Amazon constitute royalties or some other form of income.

    If individual indie/self-pub authors are publishers, then the publishing ecosystem has possibly gotten a whole lot healthier recently. Sort of like the explosion of cable and other non-big-three-TV-networks TV outlets has resulted in the current ongoing second golden age of TV. And indie/self-pub authors aren’t fools… they are already diversifying and covering their bets relative to Amazon’s possible future behavior.

    As an aspiring writer working on my first novel, I believe in being absolutely clear and ruthless in understanding what I am getting into. What I write is important to me, but it does not make me or it a special flower and I am not owed or entitled to anything special because of it. Or to put it another way, I and my writing are both special flowers and commodities simultaneously.

    We tell children that they are special flowers and treat them as such early on… and they are… but we wean them off that as they get older… if we want them to be able to survive and thrive in the real world.

  • commentary42

    Good commentary. I also believe that Amazon, as the largest publisher of Indy authors, clearly has a conflict of interest when it comes to dealing with other publishers. There offer to authors is both unethical and if executed would be illegal as well. A healthy business ecosystem has a lot of diversity and publishing can only stay healthy if authors are compensated fairly for their work. The best way to assure that is to have large publishers, small publishers and services that support self publishing. The analogy I like to use is chocolate (which goes wonderfully well with reading books). Hershey’s is good chocolate, but it is not Godiva. I read and enjoy a lot of Indy authors but the lower costs are usually reflected in a lower quality product. When I really want a rich full bodied (and well edited) reading experience I seek out my favorite authors who are 90% published by large to mid size publishers. As a consumer I want those choices; as an author I want those choices as well.

  • Craig K

    definition ecosystem: biological community of interacting organisms and their physical environment. (in general use) a complex network or interconnected system. Hmmmm…looks like a good fit to me; how is the term confusing?

  • Debra Borchert

    I do not understand how Amazon can make their offer to
    authors when execs at Amazon know authors are legally contracted to their
    publishers for the services that the publishers provide. Amazon is not offering
    to provide publishing services (advances, editing, book design, marketing,
    etc.), which have already been provided by Hachette.

    So what am I missing?

  • Bill N

    Amazon has never stated that books are not like other commodities because to Amazon books ARE just commodities – like dog food, pampers or screw drivers. There business model is predicated on the commidification of the volume of products they sell at the lowest price possible to a captive audience.