The contract dispute between Amazon.com and Hachette Book Group has delayed the shipment of thousands of titles. The battle took another turn this week as Amazon reached out to Hachette authors with an offer to immediately begin offering the delayed books again and give its share of Hachette digital book sales to the authors for the duration of the dispute -- if the publisher would also forgo its share of the revenue.
What do authors think? Authors Guild president Roxana Robinson isn't buying it, saying the offer is merely a tactic to bully the publisher into conceding to unfavorable terms.
When presented with that argument, Amazon said in a statement late Wednesday that writers against the deal, such as Robinson, are "conflating the long-term structure of the industry with a short-term proposal designed to take authors...out of the line of fire."
"Given her position as the head of an author's advocacy group, it is hard to believe she could be against such an offer," the company said of Robinson. "She's the leader of the Authors Guild, not the Publishers Guild."
This is not the first time that the guild, which represents about 9,000 writers, has found itself at odds with Amazon and other tech giants over moves to take books into the digital age. The group has also been critical of publishers, saying that those companies "regularly put the squeeze" on their authors when discussing e-book royalty rates. It's also worth noting that there are a number of self-published authors who've welcomed Amazon's rise in the e-book industry -- including several who circulated a petition in support of Amazon, whose chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.
Robinson took some time Wednesday to chat by phone with The Washington Post about the guild's position on the offer from Amazon. The following has been edited for length and clarity.
What’s your reaction to this Amazon proposal?
Generally speaking, I think that authors are still stuck in the middle of this, which is disheartening because we supply the product. We supply the books, which both Amazon and the publishing houses need.
The Amazon letter didn't really take us out of the middle; it asked us to take sides against our publishers. It also seems to assume that what we really want is a short-term windfall, which is what we get if Amazon asked Hachette to give up revenues from e-books. But we want a healthy publishing ecosystem, a system of commerce in which we’re not trying to kill each other or drive each other out of business.
What would that system look like?
I think, at the moment, that because Amazon has such a huge share of the market, it would be great if there was some other force brought to bear on it to break it up.
Do you mean government intervention?
Having the government step in would be one way. I don’t know the legal definition of a monopoly, but when a single company has so much power, that would be a situation in which legal intervention would make sense.
Or another thing is that when a company is larger than a certain size, there can be moves internally to break them up. Or to change things when a company dominates the marketing of the product and is trying to take over the whole branch of the industry.
One interesting thing that happened yesterday is that HarperCollins is starting to sell directly. So consumers no longer need to go to Amazon. That would be a way to change this.
Amazon says that their proposal is of particular benefit to mid-list authors; do you foresee a schism?
If they really wanted to benefit mid-list authors, they could have refrained from taking them off the site in the first place. Or they could have offered single-handedly to give up its revenues from e-books. That letter suggests Hachette will be giving up something without asking Hachette first.
We don’t know what the terms are between Hachette and Amazon. It’s a complicated offer that [Amazon is] making, and it’s not as simple as they would like to make it seem.
I've been in touch with other people at the Authors Guild. We're trying to represent everyone, which includes those authors who are self-published and trying to protect them as well. And we’re looking toward the long-term; we want the best arrangement possible for writers in the future.
What do you think the best arrangement would be?
We don’t know what Amazon’s plans are. I understand why people would go to Amazon, and accept this deal. The terms are very welcoming. But we don’t know what the terms would be like in the long-term.
The sense that we have is that Amazon is pursuing every one of their partners. And at a certain point, squeezing the supplier is no longer sustainable. Amazon’s response is they [Hachette] can afford this; that’s not a constructive attitude toward a partner that you want to be vital, energetic and healthy.
It would be better for all of us if we all agree that everyone should have enough profit. We shouldn't go after every cent that we can take out of everyone else’s hide.