Authors United vs. Amazon: a Primer

I strongly suggest to you all that you read the latest letter from Authors United to Amazon’s Board of Directors, because seriously, it is just the very cutest thing. My favorite is “books are not consumer goods,” but the cry that traditional publishing and traditionally published authors like themselves are crucial, because editors (and also America), paired with the error in the very first line, is pretty good too. Over a thousand people signed that letter, and it claims that every one of them read it first. So I guess they’re right. They really do need editors.

But, I know my peeps are busy. Maybe you don’t have time to read it. Because you’re working, like, day jobs, and writing books and stuff. So to help you stay informed within the confines of your busy schedule, I’m going to go ahead and sum up this whole kerfuffle for you.


AUTHORS UNITED: We’re really mad because you’re blocking sales of Hachette titles!

AMAZON: We’re not blocking sales of Hachette titles. Go buy them from our site right now.

AUTHORS UNITED: Well, our sales are down.

AMAZON: Then maybe some of you clowns should stop urging your readers to boycott us? (shrug)

AUTHORS UNITED: But you’re not stocking them in your warehouses! Or putting pre-order buttons on the pages!

AMAZON: We can’t be stocking or promising future sales of books from a supplier whose products we have no contract to sell. Business and customers and stuff? And by the way, the reason we don’t have a contract with this particular supplier is that they let the contract expire and refused to negotiate a new one.

AUTHORS UNITED: Okay, but we’re really mad because you’re blocking boycotting sanctioning Hachette titles!

AMAZON: Are not.

AUTHORS UNITED: Are too.

AMAZON: Whatevs.

AUTHORS UNITED: LITERATURE! CULTURE! BOOKS ARE NOT THINGS AND STUFF!

AMAZON: …

AUTHORS UNITED: AMAGA YOU ARE NOT DISCOUNTING OUR BOOKS!!!11!!one!

AMAZON: But your publisher is arguing that you authors can’t eat unless the prices are kept high, so…

AUTHORS UNITED: You can’t just go charging the price Hachette put on the cover, are you nuts? Nobody is going to buy books at that price! YOU OWE US DISCOUNTS! WE ARE ENTITLED TO DISCOUNTS! Also, we have never commented on the price of books.

AMAZON: But… isn’t complaining about discounts kind of like commenting on the price of books?

AUTHORS UNITED: Books are not consumer goods!

AMAZON: Then why are we discussing discounting and warehousing and selling them?

AUTHORS UNITED: We are prominent and important! We are PROMINENT and IMPORTANT! WE ARE PROMINENT! AND ALSO IMPORTANT!

AMAZON: Kk. We’re going back to work now.

NEW YORK TIMES REPORTER: No! Listen! They are prominent! Also important! WHALE MATH!!!!


So there you have it. HTH.

Further reading:
Joe Konrath’s hilarious fisk
Hugh Howey’s summary of lies from many directions

64 words on the street

  1. Well, that sure was a long letter to say a couple things. But, writers. So . . .
    Very florid and elaborate, though, as if partly meant to scare the Amazon board into compliance with their wishes by the sheer ferocity of their sentence construction.

  2. to say a couple things

    Things that aren’t even true.

    I’ve not felt an urge to blog about any of this before now. Their first letter was annoying, but I was willing to bet that 90% of them signed it because they were told by friends, or their agents or editors, that this was about The! Future! Of! Books! and they took that at face value because it came from people they trusted.

    But now the misinformation has been corrected, so many times, and in so many places, that it’s impossible to regard them putting their names on a second letter saying pretty much the same stuff as anything but willful deceit, employed to protect their own self interests. So disappointing, coming from so many people I once admired. (And many that I never admired but who still should not be lying.)

    Either that, or they’re continuing to support a cause they haven’t bothered to read up on, which is arguably worse.

    the sheer ferocity of their sentence construction

    Hee. The pretentiousness is nearly as offensive as the lying. Protip: there’s a word for things you try to sell, and that word is: product. If that word is too filthy to sully your precious special snowflake books, then don’t try to sell them.

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  4. My favorite after “books are not consumer products” is “They advance money to authors, giving them the time and freedom to write their books.”

    I sold my first book for $3000. The party was potluck and BYOB and the next morning I was back shelving books at the library for minimum wage.

    • Yeah, that one was a howler as well. I’m pressed to think of any writers who wrote their first book(s) on an advance alone and didn’t have day jobs. In fact, a few of the more famous signatories have well-known “I had three day jobs, but I kept at it!” stories.

      Edit: I think Harper Lee wrote To Kill a Mockingbird on an advance? So there’s one.

    • Hi Dana (*waving*). Just wanted to let you know that a book of yours (Fire and Ice) is sitting patiently in my to-be-read pile. I could never resist a book with a plane on the cover. I’m looking forward to reading it!

  5. The frustrations so many of us Indies have with the false innuendo, half truths, and outright lies has been draining over the course of this entire dispute. For me, the worst episodes were the lies published by The Daily Beast (Newsweek) and the NY Times (I’m a subscriber). For those two august publications be part of this smear campaign is the worst. For the NY Times and Newsweek to have (on this issue) more in common with Swift Boaters and Birthers is galling.

    I can’t blame Howey, Konrath, Eisler et al for foaming at the mouth as they have been doing– they aren’t backing down from continuing to speak truth.

    But…
    It’s become (for me) tiring. Has my relationship with Amazon been a boon? Are you kidding me?!? It’s changed my life. Period. But my voice is small. I have done what I can, but to continually confront the lies has been draining.

    Until this post…
    WTF IS WHALE MATH?
    Why am I laughing so hard?
    Thank you for energizing me with laughter! OMG this is spot on and PHUN-KNEE!!
    Thank you!

    • Whale Math was coined by someone more clever than I, in the comments on The Passive Voice, after a New York Times article suggested that 900 people signing a letter was greater than 8,000 other people signing a petition because 200,000 people signed a different petition to help whales. Yeah, it really made that little sense. The important message is that Authors United signatories matter approximately 8.9 times more than everyone else.

      • Derp.
        Missed that one, and I do get PG’s feed.

        AAand, I subscribe to the NY Times. Forced to (lol) b/c hubby’s been reading it since the 60’s! Thus, I did read Strietfield’s article… and gnashed my teeth, but still didn’t make this eloquent connection.

        I have to admit- his pivot to Whale Math was clever as hell. Many readers (including me) will just pass by. OMG the man’s clever!

        Thanks for the reply. Honest- totally missed it.
        Now back to the other posts!

  6. While this second letter is definitely ineffective, the fact remains that Amazon is not the gracious Goody Friend indies think it is, and the patina of half-truths, ignorance, outright lies and total lack of understanding about the business of publishing that surrounds the discussion of these issues is served by Howey et al as cheerful nonsense that only hurts indies by giving them an extremely skewed view of the real situation. It cannot be repeated too often that the battle between Amazon and publishers is not over pricing, no matter what Amazon’s PR machine attempts to claim; ebook prices are, in general, already within the parameters it states and should remain within the control of the publishers. The battle is over Amazon’s need to wring more money out of its vendors and control the publishing business, which, ultimately, gives the company more control over all authors, including indies. As you watch your incomes at KDP being manipulated and you helplessly ride the Amazon-controlled waters there, remember that you are at the mercy of the Big A, and that your share of the pie is slowly being cut away, while you poke fun at the other “side.”

    • Thank you, but most of us, including Mr. Howey, are not stupid. We have a business relationship with Amazon. We are not ‘best friends forever’ and never had any such delusion, so take your insults and stick them somewhere appropriate.

      As for your claims about our diminishing incomes, it happens to be going up and unlike most of the authors who signed that lame letter, I make enough money from my sales to actually be a self-supporting author. I also know the definition of ‘consumer goods’ unlike those who wrote that piece of silliness.

    • Well, I would point out that if you want to identify evil things, how about how I’m a local self-published author with a highly rated product, but no local bookstore will allow me to arrange a signing unless it has been sanctioned by the big publishers, and they won’t, so go f@k yourself, local author.
      I didn’t see anyone (meaning you Deborah) raising an uproar over how unfair that tactic is.

  7. Thanks for bringing a few laughs to this stooshie (a good Scottish word that I’ll let people look up just like the authors of the letter SHOULD have looked up the meaning of ‘consumer goods’).

  8. Please… someone… correct me if I’m wrong:
    I see it as Amazon gave ME an opportunity. They said something like ‘Put your stuff up, and good luck– we get 30-70 percent’. I went from scribbling in pencil to (trying to) craft in pen…. then went to my netbook. Chasing a dream….

    What was my dream?
    I live in Canada (aka ‘the other CA’). I just wanted to make enough money to be able to stay home and not go out to my Joe Job. That’s all. Just a measly five hundred bucks a week…

    I decided to write. Let me confess…
    It’s H A R D. Not as in slinging pasta to drunks, not as in being in an office and all that jazz. It’s a craft, and if you really, really want to get good at it, you have to pay dues.

    Such as finishing the da** book.
    And then doing rewrites.
    And learning the craft…. Dues

    But y’know what? In the course of all that… well, I’ve been unemployed for some time now. I work loooong hours; longer than when I held down a job. This ain’t ez street.

    I am blessed b/c the only thing in my working on my craft and otherwise are readers. Me, my stuff, and the gajilioon readers.

    I have so much more artistic freedom I thought possible. I’ve grown so much.

    Amazon and Jeff are NOT my buds. Got it. All they did was give me an oppty. That has given me so much. Sure; if Jeff leans on me for more $$$, I’ll step back. But Amazon didn’t ask form more than a piece of my action.

    So far, so good!
    Heck…
    So far….
    So GREAT!
    (Whale Math calculations were employed in the writing of this post)
    :)

  9. So I stopped paying attention to the Hachette Jobbers a while back. I developed a problem where I would scream obscenities at my poor computer and I would rant incessantly about the stupidity — er, the intellectually-challenged episodes — of complete strangers. It was unhealthy. My husband was going to hold an intervention.

    I read this though, thanks to TPV. And I laughed. And because Dan said you champion Oxford commas, I decided to sign up for your newsletter. Because I happen to like Oxford commas. And snarkiness. :) So you now have a brand new fan.

    • Thanks, Shelton! Funny you should say that about getting upset and screaming. When that second letter came out I thought, well, enough is enough, I have to say something, so I started a serious post in which I expressed my heartfelt disappointment with these people, many of whose books are on my shelves, some of whom I’ve looked up to, and the dishonesty, self importance, dishonesty, sense of entitlement, dishonesty, arrogance…

      And you can see what happened. I started lecturing. Which is boring. Plus I was getting upset and swearing.

      So I went with laughing at them instead. Because they are being ridiculous.

  10. Brilliant, just the right amount of snark (320%) to a topic that deserves all the snark it can swallow.

    I would only add how disappointed I was, as a part of Colbert Nation, to see Stephen Colbert not only jump in with the Hatchette crowd, but to use his own bully pulpit to spread lies and half-truths about Amazon on his show. Since he doesn’t put up with bullshit from anyone else, I was disappointed to see him slather out his own in naked self-interest.

    • Your Gravatar is awesome. In the sense that it’s freaking me out a little.

      Colbert is just one of many that makes me sad. At least he’s upfront about the fact he’s a Hachette author though. He’s not pretending to do this for the children and apple pie and freedom and literacy.

  11. Thanks for clarifying this issue. I was hiding under my desk every time someone wanted to ‘discuss’ it and now I can come out. Whew! I was running out of dropped M&M’s…

    Anyway, I am disappointed that so many name writers forget where they came from and how happy they once were to have *anybody* buy or review their work. Amazon gets books in the hands of readers. I may not always like their methods or their service, as arcane and mysterious as dealing with wizards, but they put my books in a form that people can enjoy and I appreciate it.

  12. Thank you for the wonderful summary. I’m glad I saw the warnings on Nate’s page about not drinking anything while reading it!

    I’ve always seen the Amazon v. Hachette argument as a business deal. And I’m so, so, so tired of people complaining about Amazon tactics (warehouses, pricing, etc.), and then boasting about the great deal they found on ____ item on Amazon. Please, talk with either your money or your mouth, but not both if they contradict! And for those who are bringing up “great and important literature must be supported” — please, I’m a librarian, my job is literacy and information. No one is automatically entitled to monetary support in order to create this important literature. Works of genius have to compete for readers just as much as genre fiction (some of which I have found to be far more important and thought-provoking than the non-fiction books I’ve come across).

    If it is important to you to write something, you will find a way to do it regardless of whether you get a life-supporting advance from a publisher or work a day job during the process. If you’ll only write if someone is willing to support you, well, then in my blue-collar world, it must not be that important to you.

  13. Amazon does, indeed, offer a market that has lower costs of entry and wider reach than any other.

    Amazon currently controls 65% of the ebook market in the US, and 40% of the print trade book market in the US.

    Amazon has cut self-publishers profit margin by half in the past, with no notice and no recourse. Those were self-publishers using POD printing, through LSI, and offering Amazon a 20% discount, no returns. Amazon suddenly changed the availability on strongly selling titles with this arrangement from the real same day ship date to a fantasy 2-3 weeks. Sales tanked — unless they moved the book to (Amazon’s own) CS for printing, and upped the discount to a minimum of 40% and full return privileges.

    There are other such incidents.

    Amazon is NOT a market you want to depend upon. If you are getting more than 40% of your sales from them, you need to go out and beat the bushes for other ways to reach your readers, because you can bank on Amazon to repeat their past patterns.

  14. Amazon claims that all ebooks have the same demand elasticity. This is arrant nonsense, as anyone with any knowledge of that number and what it means already knows. But Amazon gets away with it.

    Amazon, among others, claims that ebooks should be produced for almost no investment. This is arrant nonsense.

    Ebooks **can** be produced for almost no investment. But the right amount of money that should be invested will depend upon many factors, including the baseline sales of a given ms with minimal investment, the demand elasticity, and the percent that you can increase your sales with a given increase in investment. It’s simple math (more or less), and Amazon knows this, but they get away with acting as if they don’t.

    Amazon’s maximum profit is closely aligned with their maximum revenue. That’s not true for all books put out by all publishers. It’s a function of the direct variable costs that the publisher incurs, and of various other factors. Amazon knows this, but gets away with pretending that they don’t.

    Snark is all well and good. I love good snark, and the post was funny.

    It’s certainly true that both sides are engaging in PR. But Amazon is getting away with financial distortions of an extreme degree. It’s annoying that they think so little of us that they’re trying this stuff on for size.

    Pick whatever side you like, but if they use numbers, do at least ask that the numbers bear some relation to reality.

  15. I am really amused that one of the talking points of the AU letter is that Amazon is not discounting Hatchette authors’ books, when that is supposedly one of the areas of contention between Amazon and Hatchette. I have never understood why it has been perfectly fine for all these years for Amazon and other retailers to discount books, it suddenly became not fine for Amazon (and others) to discount ebooks below the discounted price of the print book. Well, that’s not exactly true. I have always suspected that the publishers turned a blind eye towards the discounting of NY Times bestsellers because it kept their books on the NY Times bestseller list, but since the ebook sales aren’t counted by the NY Times, there is a fear that too many people will buy the ebook and mess up their campaigns to get books on the NYT bestseller list. That, and discounted ebooks will prevent the publishers from raising the price of hardcovers because who wants to be paying $30+ for a novel anyway?

  16. I really am not well versed in this particular issue at all, but I see it as another of a long, endless string of examples of how our economy works. The mechanism is very simple and general, but the effects spin off in excruciating detail and complexity.

    The Hachette writers will learn that no matter how eloquent their letter, they can’t overcome economic forces, and that is why this whole thing is so funny. Amazon is simply demonstrating that corporations are NOT people but money making engines.

  17. no matter how eloquent their letter

    I think the worst thing about that letter, though, is how NOT ELOQUENT it is. There may be some good points buried in there (this “Amazon is not without sin/your friend/a hero/a philanthropic organization” thing is brought up to indies a lot–we know that). But I’d never see them through that fog of blowhard pomposity.

    Seriously, you guys. You’re writers. If you’re to be believed, you’re the most prominent group of writers ever assembled! And you’ve come up with the very worst persuasive essay I’ve ever seen.

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