Tag Archives: Douglas Preston

“Do you as an Amazon director approve of this policy of sanctioning books?”

By Liesa Malik

The first post on this topic was published on August 22 (Hachette vs. Amazon–Do We All Lose?) As before…any opinions expressed here are mine as an individual and do not reflect an official stance by RMFW or its members . . .

As the battle between Hachette and Amazon continues over the pricing and distribution of ebooks, Authors United took a second swipe at the on-line giant by publicly asking individual Amazon board members to reconsider the sanctions imposed on Hachette authors.

In May, Hachette and Amazon broke away from the bargaining table and took their disagreements public. While stories about the conflict started showing up in the press, Amazon apparently took out its wrath on individual authors who happen to be represented by publishing giant, Hachette Book Group. These authors, many of whom are household names, had things like competitive pop-up ads cover their author pages, delayed shipping of books, and removal of buy buttons from some of their titles.

I sat down with author Douglas Preston (co-author of the best-selling Pendergast thriller series, as well as several fiction and non-fictions works of his own) to talk about what authors may want from Amazon.

Photo credit: Christine Preston

Photo credit: Christine Preston

“We’re not taking sides in this dispute, but simply asking Amazon not to target authors,” said Mr. Preston. “Basically, there is a lot on the web misrepresenting our position, so this is a good opportunity to reinforce what we’re trying to say.”

The quiet and thoughtful writer said he decided to take action when he noticed his sales drop by 60% to 70%. “I wrote a letter hoping twelve brave authors would sign it. I’ve received over one thousand responses.” That’s how Authors United was formed.

The letter, an open missive to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, asked the online retail giant to curtail the harmful practices that were hurting individual authors. The letter went viral.

In response, Amazon started Readers United, with more verbiage to debate Mr. Preston’s assertions.

Then, in the week of September 14-20, Authors United decided to take the additional step of contacting each board member of Amazon. In part, the new letter reads:

“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.”

Mr. Preston said, “This feels like betrayal. Amazon wants authors to put up author pages, which is mutually beneficial, but we help them sell our books by listing other authors we like, reviewing other author’s books, and occasionally writing blogs for them about books we like to read. We’re happy to do this because everyone benefits.”

Then Mr. Preston’s voice took on an edge. “To add gratuitous insult, when you go to my page and pull up one of my books, a big pop-up window emerges suggesting I might enjoy another book (not by a Hachette author) at a better price.”

Mr. Preston said that he’s always had warm feelings for Amazon, and is himself, a Prime Member of the on-line store. But with this conflict his feelings may be undergoing change. “They (Amazon) shouldn’t block sales or inconvenience customers. I can’t get my own book in less than a few weeks.”

Was the second letter effective? That remains to be seen, but last weekend (September 20th) an annual secret soiree held in New Mexico for big name authors and hosted by Amazon was missing some invitations—significantly, invitations to Hachette authors or those who have publicly shown support for Authors United.

I asked Mr. Preston in August if he could see a happy ending to the dispute. “What I hope,” said Mr. Preston, “is that we can create a healthy eco-system in publishing for Amazon, for Hachette, for authors to be able to support themselves and feed their families.

Side Note: Attempts to contact representatives for either Amazon or Hachette have been met with refusal and reference to public relations bulletins. While I will keep an eye on this situation, this ends my entries for the RMFW blog for a while.

Hachette vs. Amazon—Do We All Lose?

By Liesa Malik

Personal Note: It has been several years (decades) since I last worked on news copy, and my journalism background is very rusty. Therefore, I have to admit to writing this with bias, and let you know that any opinions expressed here are mine as an individual and do not reflect an official stance by RMFW or its members . . .

Whether you love it or hate it, big business is here to stay, and stay involved with our lives. This is the story of two giants in the publishing industry and how we as authors might be involved.

BREAKING NEWS . . .

In May 2014, the New York Times broke a news story sure to rock the publishing industry. Hachette Book Group, fresh off an anti-trust lawsuit by the government, was the first of five major publishing houses required to re-negotiate pricing issues surrounding the ebook business. And talks weren’t going well.

On the surface, the lines of this dispute were clearly drawn and easy to form opinions over. Hachette, as the publisher, would set prices for ebooks in a similar fashion to pricing for hardcover books. Some ebooks would be offered for sale at $12.99 up to nearly $20. Most of these ebooks were authored by some of the biggest names in the industry – James Patterson, Malcom Gladwell, Stephen Colbert, Douglas Preston, and more—and demand for these books would easily cover the prices asked.

On the other hand, Amazon wanted the books priced at no more than $9.99. Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon has a standing phrase, “your margin is my opportunity.” His focus is to bring the lowest price to everything Amazon distributes to the consumer. And that includes books.

Some problems here:

  1. The publishers claim the right to price their own products (often developed with hefty advances, public relations campaigns, and the costly editorial superiority of large publishing houses). If Amazon is allowed to price the books at below cost, the big houses could soon be in financial trouble.
  2. Amazon called foul over that thinking. In a printed statement the company said, “With an e-book, there’s no printing, no over-printing, no need to forecast, no returns, no lost sales due to out-of-stock, no warehousing costs, no transportation costs, and there is no secondary market—e-books cannot be resold as used books. E-books can be and should be less expensive.”
  3. The Wall Street Journal weighed in on the pricing dilemma even before this latest dispute arose. In an April 2012 article, WSJ reporters wrote “publishers feared that $9.99 would cement consumer price expectations and make it difficult to charge more (for books) in the future.” That fear drove competitors into an alliance between the five major publishers (Hachette, Harper Collins, MacMillan Publishing, Penguin Random House and Simon and Schuster) and Apple computer, in which a new sales model would allow higher pricing to exist across the board. That’s when Amazon complained and the government stepped in. The publishers and Apple ended up with millions of dollars of restitution to pay, and the demand that new negotiations take place.

THE PR WAR BEGINS

Soon after the break down this spring, Hachette and some of its authors began reporting on the semi-secret punishing tactics Amazon was using to drive down Hachette sales on Amazon. This is significant because Amazon owns 41% of all book sales and 61% of ebook sales in the U.S. The tactics being used were:

  • Slow delivery of book orders. Amazon claimed Hachette wasn’t sending books over on time, and Hachette claimed Amazon was holding them back from consumers.
  • Removal of “Buy Buttons” from some titles
  • No ability to pre-order expected releases
  • Competitive advertising on a Hachette author’s page that recommended different titles (by other publishers) at a better price.

These punitive actions were met by huge complaints in the press. Stephen Colbert even produced a questionable hand signal to the distribution giant. 

THE GLOVES COME OFF

As more and more authors found out about, and voiced concerns over, Amazon’s “bullying” tactics, Amazon tried offering to pay the authors 100% of its sales of their books while the price war continued.

“That was not a real offer,” said Douglas Preston (co-author with Lincoln Child of the Pendergrast series) “It was an attempt to divide authors from their publishers.”

Mr. Preston dove into the fray with a letter that quickly circulated among the famous and not-so-famous author community. “I wrote that letter hoping twelve brave souls would sign it. I’ve received over one thousand responses. The letter went viral,” said Mr. Preston.

On August 10th that same letter appeared as an advertisement in the NY Times and immediately faced tremendous support, and large skepticism.

Authors like Stephen King, Donna Tartt, and Philip Pullman “signed” and endorsed the letter, while Amazon called Mr. Preston “entitled” and “an opportunist.” The Amazon team was referring to the successful career Mr. Preston has built as an author, and hinted that personal greed was the reason Mr. Preston may have written his letter.

NOW IT’S OUR TURN

The above notes only nick the surface of the publishing world at work. Some other salient points to ponder include:

  • If Amazon succeeds in cowering Hachette, will it be able to use this battle to set up negotiations with the other major publishers to its advantage?
  • Are consumers right in their demands for the lowest possible price on books? Is there such a thing as a “free lunch” in publishing?
  • As authors, are we receiving a fair deal from publishers who have little to no cost in converting our paper and hard bound books to ebooks?
  • In the past, Amazon had a program called “The Gazelle Project” where small publishers were pressured out of existence with similar tactics. In a Hachette published book by Brad Stone, The Everything Store, Mr. Bezos is supposed to have set the tone by saying Amazon “should approach these small publishers the way a cheetah would pursue a sickly gazelle.” Since that became public knowledge, the program name has changed to the “Small Publishers Negotiation Program.”
  • While Amazon sells 50% or more of all books sold in the United States, those sales represent only about 7% of the giant distributor’s sales. Are the big five gazelles now?

I tried to reach representatives from the biggest two players in this situation. I was essentially told “no comment,” and given links to press releases and public letters.

Next month, I will write up interview notes from Mr. Preston–one man, one voice who has shown once again that there is power in words.  The question is, will those words stand up to legitimate, albeit, hardball tactics by Amazon?