Word for Word: Authors unite against Amazon’s Hachette job

Bestselling writers have taken the giant online bookseller to task for its tactics

Slow lane: Amazon has delayed delivery of Hachette titles from its warehouses while it puts pressure on the publisher to change its terms. Photograph: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

Slow lane: Amazon has delayed delivery of Hachette titles from its warehouses while it puts pressure on the publisher to change its terms. Photograph: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

Sat, Aug 16, 2014, 01:00

When Waterstones opened its first US store, in 1991, the historian Robert Massie told a packed Boston audience at one of our first events: “You do realise how lucky you are, having the best bookseller in the world on your doorstep?” These sentiments, echoed time and again, illustrate the affection authors reserved for a company that cared about the crucial relationship between booksellers and writers.

The Waterstones revolution changed the industry dramatically, but the devotion of authors was not universally shared by publishers, some of which believed the company was exploiting its dominance to squeeze them on trade terms.

Now, as Amazon stomps around like Godzilla, publishers must look back on Waterstones as a pussy cat by comparison. The online retailer’s ruckus with Hachette, the publishing giant, is just the latest example of Amazon’s beastliness. Amazon wants Hachette to cut its ebook prices; it also wants a bigger share of that revenue. Hachette wants to set its own prices. Jeff Bezos’s company is pressuring Hachette to try to bring it into line: refusing to sell key new titles; selling others at uncompetitive prices; increasing delivery times. Coming from a company that has made “customer first” its mantra, it seems more than usually cavalier.

Bezos and Amazon are making enemies fast. Last Sunday a group of bestselling writers called Authors United, headed by Douglas Preston, took out a full-page ad in the New York Times. An open letter calling on Amazon “to stop harming the livelihood of the authors on whom it has built its business”, it was signed by more than 900 writers, including Stephen King and Donna Tartt.

That books are more than products seems to have escaped Amazon’s attention. Consumers consume products, with price and convenience as the key drivers; in this world, Amazon is retail nirvana. But the book industry has always relied on a freemasonry of kindred spirits that blended creative and entrepreneurial skills in a congenial synthesis.

Can Amazon afford to alienate influential writers? Maybe it can. The retailer has retaliated with its own group, Readers United, calling on readers to pressure Hachette.

Bezos likes to say that “Amazon didn’t happen to the book business: the future happened to the book business.” Amazon is the present, but whether it’s the future remains to be seen. It’s hard to imagine how its crude hegemonism can continue without more damaging blowback.

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