Amazon facing united front of authors in Hachette e-book dispute

Some of the literary world's biggest names sign a letter opposing the e-commerce company's muscle-flexing with book publisher Hachette.

Nick Statt Former Staff Reporter / News
Nick Statt was a staff reporter for CNET News covering Microsoft, gaming, and technology you sometimes wear. He previously wrote for ReadWrite, was a news associate at the social-news app Flipboard, and his work has appeared in Popular Science and Newsweek. When not complaining about Bay Area bagel quality, he can be found spending a questionable amount of time contemplating his relationship with video games.
Nick Statt
4 min read

Amazon's Kindle Paperwhite e-reader. Sarah Tew/CNET

Amazon's ongoing dispute with book publisher Hachette, the fourth largest in the US, is about to heat up.

Nearly 900 authors, including heavyweights like Stephen King, Jennifer Egan, and John Grisham, have signed a letter in opposition of the e-commerce retailer's negotiation tactics over e-book pricing, reported The Guardian on Friday.

The front's organizer, Maine-based author Douglas Preston, plans to publish the letter full-page in The New York Times. "I have never seen in my entire life authors coming together like this," he told The Guardian. "Ever. For any reason."

The group of 900 authors contains both writers published by Hachette and those unaffected by the dispute, which surfaced in May when Amazon began removing preorder options for Hachette books, delaying shipments, and recommending similar yet cheaper titles. Amazon, which by some estimates controls more than a third of the entire book market and more than half of the e-book market, has received backlash over actions some consider overly-aggressive. For the first time, critics say, it has pulled up blockades between authors and consumers interested in ordering their titles, injuring the livelihood of authors.

Ironically, one such novel detailing Amazon's tense negotiations with book publishers -- Brad Stone's "The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon" in paperback -- was one of the titles made unavailable for preorder in May.

The details of the Hachette dispute are not public, but are believed to be over Amazon's demands for a healthier chunk of e-book sales: 50 percent of every sale, instead of 30. Though the dispute is limited to Hachette sales in the US, publishers and authors alike fear that it may reverberate through the industry as a turning point for Amazon's dominance in the market.

The rift has not only targeted high-profile authors and celebrities, like Stephen Colbert, J.K. Rowling, and Malcolm Gladwell, but scores of younger, less successful writers who feel Amazon is using them as "canon fodder," in Preston's words. He laid out the opposition's main qualms:

Amazon has been throwing its weight around for quite some time in a bullying fashion and I think authors are fed up. We feel betrayed because we helped Amazon become one of the largest corporations in the world. We supported it from the beginning, we contributed free blogs, reviews and all kinds of stuff that Amazon asked us to do for nothing. We thought we had a fairly good partnership but i n the last half dozen years Amazon's corporate behavior has not supported authors at all.

Amazon, though typically tight-lipped, has not remained silent. Earlier this month, it sent a proposal to Hachette that 100 percent of e-book revenue for its titles go directly to authors, an incentive to promote further negotiations. Hachette rejected the offer, calling it suicide.

"Hachette is part of a $10 billion global conglomerate," Amazon fired back. "It wouldn't be 'suicide.' They can afford it." Both sides are claiming they sent reasonable offers to the other, though communication has of late fallen off completely except for public shot-trading.

Meanwhile, authors are still suffering from the falling out. A petition on Change.org contested Preston's letter with a call not to boycott Amazon, asking that the publisher to shoulder the blame as "it is Hachette who wants to charge you more while paying their authors less." The petition, started by author Hugh Howey independent of Amazon, has garnered more than 7,400 signatures in the last month.

"I would say to the honorable counter-petitioners that we're all on the same side - that is the side of books and literature and reading," Preston told The Guardian. "Are we not in the same (leaky) boat and should we not be bailing together? Most of the world out there does not give a damn about books," he added.

"What we're asking Amazon is something quite simple: please don't hurt authors in your effort to gain leverage in a commercial negotiation with another large corporation," Preston concluded. Still, the Maine-based author concedes that this may be a long road, and that a strategy to better protect authors' livelihoods may be in order if the dispute becomes an entrenched fixture in the publishing industry.

In a statement given to CNET Friday, Amazon responded to Preston's campaign:

"Mr. Preston says, 'We have many loyal and committed readers. They listen when we speak. That represents power.' He is completely missing the point. It's not readers who should be listening to Mr. Preston, but Mr. Preston who should be listening to readers. And they have clearly expressed a preference for e-books priced less than $10. Even four years ago when readers expressed such a preference, Mr. Preston responded by saying publicly, 'The sense of entitlement of the American consumer is absolutely astonishing.' It's pretty clear it's Mr. Preston who feels entitled. And what's 'astonishing' is that he thinks readers won't recognize an opportunist who seeks readers' support while actively working against their interests.

Update at 2:40 p.m. PT: Updated with comment from Amazon and clarification that the anti-boycott petition from self-published authors has grown to more than 7,400 signatures on Change.org.

Update at 3:00 p.m. PT: Clarified that the Change.org petition was started by indie author Hugh Howey, independent of Amazon.